SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — What were the chances the legendary singer Johnny Mathis would still be touring 64 years after recording his first album?
The 84-year-old told me it all comes down to this: “I love to sing. My Dad sang. He’s the reason that I sing,” Mathis explained.
He performed a concert recently in San Rafael, offering such time-honored favorites as “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me to Say.”
He admits getting sentimental during the Bay Area visit.
“It’s just a wonderful thing that I wrapped myself around the fact that I had an opportunity to grow up in San Francisco,” he smiled.
He told the audience, his hand motioning downward, “I remember when I started singing, I was this high.”
Mathis was the fourth of seven children. When his father bought a $25 piano to teach them music, it changed everything.
“We lived in a small apartment building and the door was not big enough for the piano, so he dismantled it, took it through the door,” he said. “I think it was in the middle of the night, maybe 3 or 4 in the morning when I heard for the first time my Dad play the piano. I had no idea.”
Mathis sang at church, school, and amateur shows. Then he got a voice coach.
“My voice teacher taught me free of charge,” he recalled. “I couldn’t afford to pay her, so I ran errands for her.”
Mathis was also a star athlete at George Washington High School and San Francisco State University. He broke a high jump record held by college friend and future NBA great Bill Russell. SFSU would later name its annual track meet after Mathis.
But instead of trying out for the Olympics, Mathis signed with Columbia Records.
Has he ever wondered what it would have been like going to the Olympics as an athlete?
“I did salivate a little bit once in a while and thought about what it would be like to not only sing but hold a high jump record in Italy for instance,” he laughed.
The West Hollywood resident has recorded more than 80 albums. But he’s never written his own music.
“I have tried to write,” he said. “I’m terrible at it.”
He does take credit for a few changes.
“I’ve re-written some of the songs by accident,” he chuckled. “I’ve gotten it wrong. But some of the people who’ve written some of these wonderful songs says, ‘I like that. Let’s change it.’ But I sang it wrong. ‘Never mind.'”
And though not politically outspoken, Mathis did join celebrities who sang, inspiring participants in the 1965 Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.
They got a warning that scared him: “Someone was going to shoot us all and kill us all. They were hiding in the bushes way up in the hills,” he remembered.
Nothing happened, but his presence sent an important message:
“We’re all human beings, we’re all the same, whether black, white, yellow, or what have you,” he said.
Mathis remains thankful for his many life lessons. “I have nothing but gratitude for all the people along the way,” he reflected.
And his fans love timeless tunes. “He’s just superb. I’ve always loved his music,” said fan and musician Ed Allen.
“He has a classic voice most people resonate with,” said Pearlene Leary who made the Mathis’ concert a date night with Edward Shaw.
“He’s a great entertainer and he’s inspired a lot more artists to follow behind him,” said Shaw.
So how long will the legend will keep singing? As long as he can, Mathis said.