"Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight..." Psalms 19:14 (partial quote)
My whole body is buzzing. The deep-bass, droning of cellos carries all over the room, bouncing off the walls of the darkened concert hall, straight through my chest into the pit of my stomach. It fades, then segues to the ting-ting-ting of a cymbal and triangle and the ping-ping-ping of an electric piano. I recognize the melody instantly; the introduction to Life is a Song Worth Singing, a song from my childhood. The tings and the pings are joined, one-by-one, by an eclectic collection of sounds that increase in intensity and volume until finally shrill trumpets blare an ear-splitting fanfare. A lone spotlight appears at the edge of the stage; out of the shadows, into the light, he appears, and I'm in love all over again.
More casual than I'd expected, in a navy blue sportcoat and black T-shirt and white slacks that pool slightly around his feet, but that's a small disappointment. My dark, curly-haired god walks center stage, embraced by the circle of light as well as by the whistles and the cheers and the applause and the standing tribute of his devoted admirers. I have to stand myself just to see him, now. Emotion blurs my vision, and he looks so small, so otherworldly, standing there within that small circle of light. Oh, I wish I weren't so far back. After so many years of just imagining what this night would be like, I just can't believe I'm in the same room with him! I can't believe he actually came. It's 1989, and he's actually here in my city, and as far as I'm concerned, he's here just so I could see him. Wow. It's Johnny Mathis!
For years I had been hoping to see in person the source of the voice I had only became aware of in 1984; the voice that belonged, I soon learned, to a kind, gentle soul whose career goes back farther than my lifetime. People of his stature don't often come to my city; you have to go where they are. Mathis plays the casinos in Las Vegas and Reno and Atlantic City and even Connecticut. He makes a very comfortable living just playing these places. He doesn't have to come to my city, Oklahoma City, or to Fort Worth or Dallas, or any other city. But he does come, just so I, and others who adore him as I do, can see him. The scenario that introduced this piece was the first time ever I saw his face in concert, so to speak. It was an experience such that one hopes will remain etched in memory, but the mind does what it wants to sometimes. Years later, the details have blurred, but the emotion of the night remain vivid.
I've seen his show six times since then. My chances of seeing him again, however, are getting slimmer as the years go by. Now in his mid-sixties, Mathis only recently began performing regularly again. In the nineties, his itinerary literally fit on the back of a postcard. One spring day, I met a clerk at a newsstand who, upon noticing my well-worn black Johnny Mathis sweatshirt, was envious of my actually having seen him in concert, and mentioned how much she "loves" him but had never seen him in person. I knew how she felt. Always eager to help a fellow Mathis disciple, I sent her a copy of the Mathis tour schedule that I used to get from the official fan club in Burbank, California. The opportunity may arise for her, as it did for me, to witness a night of pure magic. For those who may never get a chance to do so, however, I am offering my perspectives and observations of the typical performance put on by this special man, held in such high regard by me and by thousands of people the world over. I hope that when I finish I will have encouraged you to make every effort to see him while the chance still remains.
Mathis will start the show off with a favorite theme song, and these change from year to year. Life is a Song Worth Singing was a favorite for a while; lately Moment to Moment and I'm in Love For the Very First Time seem to be the opening song of choice. I believe he chooses these songs to kind of set the proper mood.
He doesn't let his longtime fans wait too awful long for the stuff they want to hear; the songs that made him a household name in the late fifties. A glance at the audience tells you there are people who have followed him at least that long. So for them, he'll go into a few of his "hits", like Chances Are, It's Not For Me To Say, and maybe a couple of others. Sometimes they'll be medleys, sometimes the whole song. He'll save a few for after the intermission, but he seems to want to get them over with early.
Then, he'll stop and deliver the well-chosen words to his introduction, which comes several minutes after the show has started, thanking us all for coming and explaining he's not much of a talker and he hopes we enjoy the show. That's about all he'll say for the rest of the show! He doesn't seem to like to waste the audience's time or his with a lot of idle chitchat. At one show I went to, he jokingly stammered, "I don't know...how...to talk...," getting a collective chuckle out of his devoted audience, who readily forgave any lack of verbosity on his part.
It dawns on you, if you're lucky and can attend more than one of his shows, that he tends to say the same things each time, as if his dialogue has been scripted. It's almost as if Mathis wants to avoid having to think of something to say off the top of his head.
Mathis isn't much for developing a rapport with his audience, either. He's not unfriendly, but I remember during the OKC '89 show, he pretty much performed with his back to the audience, as if he were performing for his band and the accompanying orchestra rather than for the paying crowd!
Mathis has said he really prefers just to sing. If need be, he will resort to reading the sheet music to songs he's been performing for years, so intent is he on performing a song as written by the songwriter. In fact, the entire performance is a carefully prepared program during which there's little room for unscripted cleverness.
I believe this is because the early lessons a young Mathis learned in the studio have left their mark on him, and to this day he cannot abandon them. In his 1991 concert video, Chances Are, Mathis recalls how, at the beginning of his career, he was coached by producer Mitch Miller to perform a song just as the writer intended with no vocal tricks or ad lib, so that listeners could feel able to sing along.
Now, I have yet to witness a live sing-along with Mathis! I like to watch the audience as much as I do the stage, and I've observed the people in front of me and the people next to me. To tell the truth, they don't do much of anything. They don't sing, they don't even tap their feet. You definitely won't find anyone saying "Sing it!" or even "Take it home, John!" (Although there is little opportunity for dancing in the aisles, I feel the occasional shout of approval would be appropriate, because despite popular belief, the Mathis repertoire is not all sap and romance!) No, they all just sort of stare reverently toward the stage, and they don't say a word. People don't pay this close attention in church! It's as if they're under his spell, especially when Mathis is performing his more familiar older material. Unfortunately for Mr. Mathis, it appears he's not to have any type of verbal encouragement of any kind, or be interrupted under any circumstances.
You have to understand where Miller was coming from, though. In those days, you couldn't make the audience nervous by giving them words they can't say in front of their kids, or melodies that only Mathis and Pavarotti can navigate through. But let's face it. Most of us couldn't sing like Mathis on a dare, anyway. That's why we're paying him to do it!
And we pay him well, too. That first show I saw in 1989 in OKC, people were paying between $25 and $35 a seat. A benefit show in Dallas at the uniquely designed Meyerson Center in '95 cost me $75 for a seat behind the stage, where I got a view of Mathis' backside for what was, to date, my most interesting view yet! (Mathis was kind enough to turn and face us throughout the show, however.) Carnegie Hall was surprisingly reasonable; it wasn't anywhere close to the stage, which is oftentimes not the best place to be anyway due to the loudspeakers, but it wasn't in the back or on the top tier, either, and my two seats cost me $40 apiece. And I understand that at Caesar's Palace, where he used to perform a lot, you could expect to pay between $60 - $70 a seat.
Still, a Mathis show is well worth the money. It used to be that for the price of a ticket, you could count on a three-hour-long show with an eclectic repertoire with as Mathis likes to say, some songs you're familiar with and some songs you'll wonder about, songs he's recorded and many more he hasn't. I've noticed, however, that lately the shows have been getting shorter, possibly due to a later starting time, and occasional split billing with the local philharmonic orchestras who sponsor the show. But it's still a good value for the money. Best of all, you'll be spending that time with, for the most part, nice people who know how to conduct themselves in public.
After the spoken intro, Mathis continues on with what I would call, and I'm sure he would agree, his "sanity savers", the songs that have special meaning for him, and that are totally different from the sappy hits he's known for. These songs really show off his stylistic range and vocal ability. He's never been afraid to find new avenues for his voice. You may come to hear one type of song, or even a particular song, and he'll oblige, but he also likes to show there's much more to him than "Johnny's Greatest Hits". During the show in '89, there was a memorable part of the show spotlighting the music of Duke Ellington; it was a wonderful set that included songs that were not featured on his Grammy-nominated album "In A Sentimental Mood" (1990); This made the show a learning experience for me, because I didn't realize that so many songs made famous by the Duke and his orchestra had lyrics to them! Recently, he's been doing a medley of songs written by the late Henry Mancini, oftentimes leading the show with them.
Forty-five minutes to an hour after the start of the show, it's time for the comedy break. Over the years a number of comedians will entertain the audience while Mathis takes a breather backstage. A favorite for Mathis for a long time was Jeannine Burnier, whose material is not unlike that of the late Erma Bombeck. Mathis always gives her the same intro about her obsession with. Nowadays Gary Mule Deer oftentimes provides the comic relief. They all seems funny enough, but there is always a certain tedium involved in sitting through an act you didn't come to see; and so we wait.
After the comedian leaves there is maybe another 15 minutes intermission, and the lights come up in the music hall. If you have no real need to go anywhere, it's the perfect opportunity to people-watch. I use the intermission to come down from my emotional high while my pupils undilate, and I take a good look at the people who have come.
Mathis concertgoers are for the most part late middle-aged and older, for the most part white, and judging by their choice of clothing, for the most part upper middle class. I fit in none of these categories, but Mathis shows are very comfortable I have never been made to feel out-of-place among the audience members, at least not from the back row!
At my first Johnny Mathis concert, I had no idea that this was a dress-up affair; indeed, on that particular day the audience was better dressed than Mathis was for the first half of the show! Besides, just because he's on stage in evening wear doesn't mean I have to be. I couldn't believe my eyes; people had on diamonds and pearls and you could just about choke on the expensive perfume! I, of course, show up in a jeans and sweatshirt ensemble like for any other concert I was used to going to. I've learned to dress better since then, but to tell the truth nobody seemed to really notice.
Oftentimes there are souvenirs being sold in the lobby. Tapes and CDs and T-shirts as well as souvenir picture books and other doodads are sold by someone affiliated with Rojon, Mathis' public relations and management company. At some shows, you can see single stem flowers being sold - who knows why - and every now and then there's a kind of party going on where they sell alcoholic drinks in a glass! I have yet to figure what this is about.
The intermission's over and here comes the Mathis everybody thinks of when they here the name. Drop-dead gorgeous in a jet black tux that's closely fitting his still-lean body in a dramatic silhouette.
This is the part of the show that really gets into gear. You really get a sense of his talent here. The songs change from year to year as you might expect, but there are a few concert favorites that he sticks with and still performs:
One year, he tells us that he's going to read to us the story of Vincent, Don McLean's classic from years ago, that he began including in his show a few years ago, although I've not heard it recently.
A clear favorite for Mr. Mathis is Let the Good Times Roll, a blues number in which you get to see Mathis "vamp and vogue" a little for the audience, and which more often than not results in an encore.
Brazil and the love theme from the movie Black Orpheus called Manha da Carnaval (Morning of Carnival, written by the great Brazilian guitarist Luis Bonfá, whose album I'm proud to say I own) are two well-delivered pieces that showcase Mathis' love for Latin music.
Laura -- Johnny Mercer's classic movie theme
Stop, Look, Listen --a classic written for Mathis by his friend the great Thom Bell. This song was popularized by the Stylistics
Begin the Beguine-- an homage to Lena Horne, a treasured idol.
The Way She Makes Me Feel -- an homage to Barbra Streisand
And Her Mother Came, too. and I Said No are odd little songs with comic twists
Before his last scheduled song Mathis likes to introduce the small band of musicians that always accompany him from city to city, some of whom, like Gil Reigers and Joe Lizama, have been touring with him for more than 20 years. Mathis always acknowledges the "group of young people(!) that he's very proud of" and tells us they are "very nice people". Niceness is a quality that Mathis values highly.
His longtime guitarist and relatively recently-christened production manager, Gil Reigers, joins him often as vocal accompanist on songs like Welcome Home, 99 Miles from L.A., and a concert favorite known to fans as The Cricket Song. A portly, balding man with a neatly trimmed goatee, he's been a part of Mathis' crew since the early 70's. He is, I think, less accomplished as a singer, but he is used primarily for harmony, and his higher voice blends well with that of Mathis. He nonetheless has a facility with the acoustic guitar, and seems to have had some classical training. I recently was sent a tape of a European performance in the middle 70's and I was particularly impressed by the guitar work on the latin-style numbers. It is Reiger's sleepy arrangement of the Twelfth of Never that prevails over the more familiar recorded one, which the audience will probably never hear again in concert. This seems to be the one exception to Mathis' self-imposed rule of performing a song as intended. However, this arrangement and the guitarist's performance of it and other songs please Mathis, who adores Reigers and will often have him appearing superfluously on television appearances, and will take his guitarist by the hand and present him after a number to a seemingly appreciative audience.
Percussionist Joe Lizama is the quiet base of the rhythm section. Well studied, his Brazilian training brings authenticism to the Latin numbers Mathis is so fond of. His virtuosity is also evident in the way he performs various styles from pop standards to samba rhythms to complex jazz structures with such apparent ease. A generous man who avoids the spotlight, Lizama finds time to perform with other bands and teach workshops, sharing his knowledge of music to the next generation, when not traveling with Mathis. (Mr. Lizama is also a regular in "composer/multimedia artist" Joel Pelletier's band, and appears on Mr. Pelletier's recordings; I really don't know what to call the music.) Lizama is possibly the most overlooked and the most talented of Mathis' small combo.
Eric Messerschmidt, the bass man, is the relative newcomer. He's a huge fellow, built like Hoss Cartwright, and looks as though he'd be more comfortable with the stand-up bass rather than the electric bass guitar. There have been quite a few bass players in the Mathis ensemble over the years. Hopefully Eric will stay a while.
There is also recognition for "the man in charge of all of us" responsible for the night's selections. Over the years that "man in charge" has been several people, such as: Roy Rogosin, D'Arneille Pershing, Jim Ganduglia to the current John Scott Lavender.
And now the finale. For a long time, there was the ubiquitous West Side Story Medley. Other Broadway musical songs, which Mathis loves and excels at, have made their way into the shows. A current favorite are the songs from Kismet, a movie I have tried to sit through twice and have thus far been unable to: Stranger in Paradise and Baubles, Bangles and Beads
Time to cap off this night with a favorite ending. There have been a lot of great songs that have been given the honor of being the last song of the show: What I did for Love, How Do You Keep the Music Playing, nowadays he's been finishing it up with Long Ago and Far Away from the Hollywood musical Cover Girl.
Sometimes, he'll come back out and do one last number, then finally wave goodnight and quickly turn and leave. I've seen people run up to him and hand him flowers and toys. Where people get that stuff is beyond me. You don't see it done in Oklahoma City, but at some of the places where he's got established fan clubs you see it done, so that may be a clue. But as I've said many, many times before, Mathis sings for ALL of us, not just the folks in the clubs. That's why he came to my city. That's why he just might come to your city. He's here singing for us, because he loves the songs, because he loves singing, and because he loves us.
We love him, too. Curtain calls are numerous and deserved. We don't want to go, we don't want him to go, but finally the show is over.
After the lights come up and people begin making their way out the exits, you look at the watch and realize you've just spent three hours under Mathis' spell. You find yourself in a daze, and you kind of want to share your experience with someone. Sometimes that's not always possible without a price. Unfortunately, as was the case in Dallas, the "blue-hair" crowd will have an after-show gathering, to which "common" folk are not invited, to entertain themselves with cocktails. It was all very distasteful and exclusionary; a Mathis concert is not a showcase for the wealthy. People of every conceivable racial, social, and economic background love Johnny Mathis. Mathis himself makes no such distinction as to who enjoys his music, his admirers shouldn't either.
It is possible to go see him backstage after a show; difficult, but possible. I have been told, by someone who works closely with him, that the best approach to request an audience with the weary Mathis after the show is a note, delivered by usher, with your location and your request. Be aware, however, that such a meeting, to be kept brief by necessity, is a slim occurrence. Once again, the money people seem the most privileged to his time. The best you can hope for, after it's all over, is to catch a glimpse either of Mathis as he hastily leaves the venue, or, as I have, of a black stretch limo as it passes by.
The older Mathis is still strong of voice, still beautiful physically and of spirit. But like his shows, no matter how long it lasts, you know the end is coming. You wish there was a special unerasable tape in your mind where you could access the memory of his performance, that you could let play forever and ever. The Mathis concert is a wonderful experience I hope everybody has a chance to enjoy at least once. I hope I've been successful at giving you a taste of that experience. It's unrealistic, but I hope his type of music never ends.
This piece was originally written several years ago, before the Internet was a part of my reality; consequently the actual songs will have changed by now. An illustrated booklet based on this piece is in the plans for the future.
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