As one of the last true vocalists of the traditional popular music genre, Johnny Mathis began his career singing standards and morphed into quite the album artist. His turn away from the Great American Songbook and the concept album made him one of the more appealing vocalists of the era to follow.
Mathis, once invited to attend the United States Olympic track and field team trials, became one of popular music’s most adored and familiar stars. His ability to craft and blend music with his brand of “Mathis Magic” would become the stuff of legend and, for some, the stuff of mockery.
Although some might dismiss the music of Mathis as hokey or corny, a listen to his music in a modern context reveals an artist with surprising complexity, tremendous musical character, an adventurous spirit, and a rich, velvety voice. His genuine, deep tones draw some fascinating lines through pop, jazz, and even Latin music.
After doing a bang-up job on the Nat King Cole releases, Collectors’ Choice is at it again with a package of releases to showcase some of that “Mathis Magic.” The 2-CD set of Those Were the Days and Love Theme from “Romeo and Juliet” deserves special attention.
Those Were the Days first charted in December of ’68 and finds Mathis attempting to cope with the driving force of hard rock and music from Britain. Artists began to ditch the idea of the concept album in favor of a selection of singles, cover tunes, and extra goodies. Mathis follows this pattern resourcefully on Those Were the Days.
Filled with cover tunes and a sort of smiling bounce, the record finds Mathis pulling off some odd choices with sound success.
Take his rendition of “Light My Fire,” for instance (yes, that “Light My Fire”). The arrangement of the Doors classic is almost given the lounge music treatment. It slinks around calmly, with Mathis’ voice slightly impersonating Morrison and slightly impersonating a toothy game show host. His vocal lines are broad, matching the reach of the strings. It is an unusual selection that mostly works, particularly because of that funky flute.
Other spots are less interesting but more effective, like the Russian folk of the title track or Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s In Love With You.”
Love Theme from “Romeo and Juliet” shifts gears and tackles music from the stage and screen.
“A Time for Us” opens things up with big notes and bountiful production. It sounds like the beginning of a Broadway play, rightfully, and introduces the record well.
Mathis spreads his wings again and shows his experimental side with a wild and woolly interpretation of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from Hair. Here, Mathis covers new ground with a rocked-up tone that weaves through the song’s various tempo changes and chord shifts. He handles it well and demonstrates cool vocal command.
More “Mathis Magic” peppers the rest of the record, including Burt Bacharach’s “Promises Promises” and a smart, energetic rendition of Tom Jones’ “Love Me Tonight.”
Overall, this 2-CD set from Collectors’ Choice showcases some fascinating Johnny Mathis moments. It is filled with unanticipated fare, most of which works due to his sheer earnestness and vocal tendencies. While some might find it hard to adjust to Mathis belting out rock tunes like a lounge Jim Morrison, there’s an awful lot to love on the whole with this set.