Johnny Mathis will tell you that it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but he insists that Christmas be observed in moderation.
Famous for his holiday fare and make-out songs, Mathis will perform only four Christmas concerts this year — including Thursday at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.
“Four is kind of enough,” he said with a hearty chuckle.
Growing up, he sang in school choirs and department stores at holiday time. “Christmas has always been special to me,” he said. “I’m so happy when I started recording that they [Columbia Records] let me make a Christmas album and more fortunate when Percy Faith did all the arrangements. That was the home run that I needed. Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit more.”
Actually, there are 10 Christmas titles under Mathis’ name, although many are repackages — including last year’s “Johnny Mathis: The Classic Christmas Album,” which contained just two new tracks.
“You run out of songs,” the singer said recently from his Beverly Hills home.
That won’t be the case at his Minneapolis concert. Mathis said he won’t limit himself to yule favorites. “I’ve got to sing a couple things like ‘Misty,’ ‘Chances Are, ‘The Twelfth of Never.’ ”
At age 79, he’s cut back on the number of concerts he performs.
“It gives me more time for golf,” said Mathis, who plays about three times a week. “I still do enough [shows] so people know that I’m still alive.”
Mathis has been singing professionally for nearly 60 years. In college at San Francisco State University, he balanced music with his love of sports — he played basketball and did hurdles and high jump in track — but passed on the 1956 Olympic high-jump tryouts to go to New York to record his first album.
Here are six other things about him you may not know.
He is an exercise fanatic. On show days, he plops down on the floor and does sit-ups. “That just gets the blood flowing to my vocal cords,” the singer said. “That’s about all I do on the road. But when I’m at home, I do an hour and a half [workout] five days a week. It helps me get into my stage clothes. That’s a big important deal, the way people see you from the stage. Once in a while, I’d ask people, ‘How did you enjoy the show?’ ‘Hey, you looked great.’ But how did I sound? That visual look is very important to people.”
His voice has changed over the years. “It’s gotten a little richer. I’ve lost a few notes on the top. But I’ve gained a little insight about what makes people comfortable when they’re listening or watching a performance of mine. It usually has to do with singing something that isn’t vocally too strenuous. When I was a kid, I had to try a lot of pyrotechnics just so people would know who I was.”
He claims to be the first artist to release a “greatest hits” album. His first big hits, including “Wonderful Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say,” were released only as singles. In 1958, he said, “I was scheduled to record but I was in England for the first time, so Mitch Miller, my producer at the time, decided to put together the four or five singles that I had hits on and call them ‘Johnny’s Greatest Hits.’ That was the beginning. Everyone has a greatest hits album now.”
This month he released a 13-disc boxed set, “The Complete Global Albums Collection.” After several years on Columbia Records, he switched to Mercury from 1964 to 1967, but “we didn’t have much success as far as record sales were concerned. A lot of it was done in Great Britain with some new friends I’d made over there.
“I did an album of Spanish songs in my third-grade Spanish. I did a Christmas album. I did a kind of a jazz album of Broadway songs. I did an album called ‘The Wonderful World of Make Believe’ and they were all sort of ‘Camelot,’ ‘Shangri-La,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ We did wonderful stuff and no one kind of heard it. Some of it, I must admit, was kind of far-reaching on my part. But I’d say 85, 90 percent of it was quite good.”
He had his issues with drugs and alcohol. The traveling and pressure of performing got to Mathis in the mid-1960s. “I lost my concentration. I got sick vocally. I went to a well-known doctor in New York who got me involved with amphetamines. I went to the hospital and I had to wean myself off his medication.”
In later years, he said, “I drank too much. I always drank champagne, figuring it’s not too bad. It was. I had a wonderful friend in Nancy Reagan — I sang at the White House quite a lot for her husband — and she suggested this wonderful place run by Jesuit priests in Maryland. Fortunately, I kicked it. It’s been over 20 years now.”
Don’t call him Johnny. “This is John Mathis,” he said when he phoned. He’s always preferred John. Columbia Records thought “Johnny” had a better ring to it.