Johnny Mathis: How his career started & skyrocketed, plus see his Hollywood home in the ’70s

See Johnny Mathis Hollywood home back in the 70s

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We have heard Johnny Mathis sing for years — but who’s the man behind that rich, smooth voice on some of the world’s most famous ballads?

Find out more about this extraordinarily talented singer here, plus see Johnny Mathis and his Hollywood home back in the 1970s. (To see more vintage celebrity home tours, look here!)

Johnny Mathis is singing beautiful love songs for audiences around the world (1977)

Adapted from an article by Bill Thompson – The Miami Herald (Florida) September 8, 1977

“I owe a great deal of my success to good fortune,” Johnny Mathis said recently. “We can plan but so much in life. The rest is left to the gods.”

BUT THAT “good fortune” has always sided with Mathis, 40. It led him into a recording contract with Columbia Records when he was 19 years old, and gave him success in a musical era when Elvis Presley was “king.”

It eventually brought him fame and enough money to buy a Hollywood home originally built by Howard Hughes, and a ranch near Santa Barbara, California.

All that good fortune can’t hide a substantial talent, however. Mathis seems to have inherited his musical ability from his father, who played the piano and sang for his seven children after a day’s work as a domestic.

“Music had always been a part of our household,” Mathis remembers. “Besides the piano and my father’s singing, there were many • records around for us to listen to. My favorite was Nat (King) Cole.”

Vintage Johnny Mathis - Blue sweater

MATHIS’ singing, however, extended to his school and social life. By the time he was 13 years old, a music teacher at school thought he was good enough to have free voice lessons, but not in just any singing genre — she taught him classical music and operatic singing.

“I was pretty good at it,” Mathis said. “But I was more interested in jazz singing. At home, I listened to Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, B.B. King, and most of the popular jazz singers of that time.”

It was understood in the Mathis household, however, that all the children would go to college and prepare themselves for a profession that would earn them a respectable living. Johnny’s choice was San Francisco State College.

IN FACT, it was an athletic scholarship that resulted from his impressive athletic ability in high school. In college, he ran the high hurdles in 13 seconds, played basketball against Bill Russell, and high-jumped six feet, six inches.

Meanwhile, he sang in small local nightclubs whenever he got the chance. One night at the “440 Club” in San Francisco, a Columbia Records executive heard Mathis sing. The executive telegrammed his office for contracts that Mathis signed after the show.

“I still wanted to be a jazz singer,” Mathis said. “The first album recorded for Columbia was a jazz album entitled ‘A New Sound in Popular Music.'”

It seemed unlikely then that he would achieve much success. The public interest seemed to favor Elvis Presley, who had been singing for eight months.

“ELVIS WAS very popular then,” Mathis recalled. “We were absolutely at opposite ends of the spectrum. He was loud and dynamic, and I was soft and understanding.

“Although I thought jazz singing was the best thing for me, Mitch Miller wanted me to sing ballads. He wanted me to emulate the consummate romantic singer.”

Miller was right. Mathis recorded “Wonderful, Wonderful,” a single that became an instant national hit.

Johnny's Greatest Hits Johnny Mathis

Now, more than 60 albums later, Johnny Mathis can look back over a career as one of the most fascinating romantic singers in America. All of his albums have made Billboard Magazine’s Top 100 Chart.

One, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits,” has been on the Billboard chart for more than nine years.

“About 11 years ago, I had a crucial point in my career,” Mathis said. “I got a little bored. It’s easy to just work all the time, but that’s one-sided.

“I decided to find other interests. I started spending time with interesting people, and I started playing golf.

ALSO SEE: Don Ho: Why the ‘Tiny Bubbles’ singer was one of Hawaii’s first superstars in the ’60s

“GOLF IS important to me,” he added. “It’s a great mind relaxer. I play every day, and I shoot in the low 80s and high 70s. In fact, I don’t go where I can’t play golf.”

Besides playing golf all over the world, Mathis studies yoga, and spends about three months of the year between his home and his ranch, where he likes to cook meals for his friends.

“Besides good fortune, I owe a lot of my success to my good health,” he said. “Without being facetious, I’m very strong. That’s important in this business. I don’t think nature intended for us to use the human voice as much as I use mine.”

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Johnny Mathis: His own man now (1976)

Article excerpted from Ebony magazine – March 1976

It’s a Hollywood story of the kind they don’t really make anymore.

The opening scene is a San Francisco basement apartment, where a man sits at a $25 used upright piano, playing and teaching his son to sing “My Blue Heaven.”

Shortly the scene shifts to a few years later. The boy is older now and athletic. He sets a city high school jumping record, and is a star basketball player. He dreams of becoming a coach.

But he’s still taking singing lessons, though his parents are poor, after school, at night and on weekends. He must go whenever there are no paying pupils scheduled.

His father loves to hear him sing, and he’s popular at weddings and social events and wins talent contests.

FIND OUT MORE: How big is the HOLLYWOOD sign?

Singer Johnny Mathis at home back in 1976
Seated casually amid his luxuriously appointed hilltop home in Hollywood Hills, Calif., Johnny Mathis, one of the wealthiest and most popular singers in the world, says he is very happy, and his life is the best it can be at the moment.

Before you know it, he’s singing in a nightclub where an aggressive talent manager and her husband happen to hear him. Deals are signed, and in practically no time at all, the singer is earning $100,000 a year, then a million.

The plot, however, includes some problems. Girls threaten to sue him for trifling with their affections. Men take umbrage to his tête-à-têtes with their women. And then the business partnership goes sour. Yet, in the end, the hero emerges triumphant.

In the old days, Donald O’Connor would have played the part. Today, they would start it with Rodney Allen Rippy. But it’s a true story, and for all of its Cinema Gulch dramatics, there is little that is “Hollywood” about John Royce Mathis, the story’s protagonist.

Johnny Mathis vintage home - Lounge room with sofa

At 40, Johnny Mathis is prince of a small, calm realm into which his lifestyle fits smoothly. Seemingly more at ease with people than he appeared to be in his younger years, he still exudes an air of shyness from a genuine, warm personality.

He remains as handsome, if not quite as slim, as in younger years, and it is as if he were but faintly touched by nearly 20 years of lush success.

Framed by his gazebo, Mathis doodles on his sketch pad. Before heading to the course, he inspects golf clubs prior to his daily round on the links.

He drives to the nearest course in his Mercedes-Benz. Golf, he says, is one of the three or four most important things in life right now.

Johnny Mathis' Hollywood home in the 1970s (1)

Yet it has taken a lot of struggle for Mathis to be able to say, as he does today, “I have a wonderful life. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best life that I could possibly have at the moment.”

For Mathis, his new life is freedom — something he did not truly know as a child or even as a young man.

The singing lessons under the tutelage of Connie Cox went on seven days a week, sometimes as late as ten o’clock at night.

And Clem and Mildred Mathis were not permissive parents, although they and their seven children (of which Johnny was the fourth) were a close and loving family.

Johnny Mathis with his mother and father (photo published in 1965)
Johnny Mathis with his mother and father (photo published in Ebony magazine in 1965)

Some of that love was reflected in an amendment Mathis made to his “best life possible” assessment recently.

“What I don’t have anymore,” he said, “are the three people who were the reasons, really, that I sang. They were Connie Cox, my mother and my father [all now deceased].

“They were the real reason that I continued to live and work with Helen Noga [his former business manager] under stressing conditions, because Helen and my parents didn’t get along together at all. So the reason that I sang was to please Mom and Pop.”

Below: He enjoys a game of pool with his younger brother, Michael Mathis, in his home’s recreation arena. 

Johnny Mathis' Hollywood home in the 1970s (5)

Johnny sang even though he loved sports. At San Francisco State College, he ran the hurdles, excelled in basketball, and, as a high jumper, set the college record of 6 feet, 5 inches, beating by a half-inch a previous high mark set by Bill Russell of basketball fame.

Admired equally as much for his singing talents, however, Johnny sang at various events all over San Francisco, and whenever he entered a talent contest — his first was at age 14 — he won.

He was singing in 1956 with a group of young musicians in a jam session at San Francisco’s Black Hawk nightclub, owned by Helen and John Noga, when Helen heard him and decided she wanted to manage his career.

Johnny Mathis in front of the legendary Apollo Theater, with former manager Helen Noga in 1965
Johnny Mathis in front of the legendary Apollo Theater, with former manager Helen Noga in 1965

Johnny was a sensation from the very beginning. His first record, Wonderful, Wonderful, and two which quickly followed, It’s Not For Me To Say and Chances Are, each sold millions, and suddenly the airwaves were alive with the sound of Johnny Mathis: The Twelfth of Never, Maria, That Certain Smile.

He was in demand on the Ed Sullivan and other TV shows, in nightclubs and at Columbia Records. The money rolled in.

Mathis earned $100,000 that first year in show business. Over the next several years, he became the toast of the rich supperclub set, singing in a rich, romantic tenor that could caress a love lyric until the emotions trembled.

Below: Guests are offered a breathtaking view of Los Angeles from the bar in the rec room.

Johnny Mathis' Hollywood home in the 1970s (7)

Johnny’s home life

An early riser (“I’m up by 6 or 6:30”), Mathis usually settles for large glasses of cool water in the mornings, then prepares a lunch — as he does all his own meals; he is an excellent cook — which he puts into a brown bag, then climbs into his $29,000 silver-mink Mercedes-Benz coupe and drives off to his 17th-floor, glass-walled office on Sunset Boulevard, arriving about 8 a.m.

ALSO SEE: See singer/TV star Dinah Shore’s Beverly Hills home – including her living room, kitchen & guest house

After work, he goes shopping for dinner. “Then I go home, turn on the television, pour myself a glass of wine and start to cook.”

Below: An excellent cook, Mathis prepares all his own meals, packing his lunch in a brown paper bag. He also delights in preparing special meals for a few close friends.

Johnny Mathis in his kitchen - 1970s

In a couple of hours, he is sitting down to eat, sometimes with a friend or two he has invited in, and is off to bed by 10:30 or 11 p.m.

If he does not fall asleep right away, he has a choice of 17 color TV sets, each capable of picking up 23 channels, including cable and first-run films and stations from as far as a hundred miles away reaching his hilltop house. 

Mathis’ house was built by billionaire Howard Hughes for a lady friend, actress Jean Peters, who became Hughes’ wife. Mathis purchased the two-bedroom residence for $170,000, and has extensively renovated it.

MORE: The real Howard Hughes, before he went off the rails and was still Hollywood’s secret heartbreaker (1942)

Johnny Mathis' Hollywood home in the 1970s (3)

It is now a sumptuous two-bedroom palace done in lush, vibrant colors and featuring such goodies as an indoor swimming pool (as soon as you step inside the house), sauna, house stereo system, an exotically stocked 100-gallon saltwater aquarium, 17 color TV sets, a gazebo and garden, a carpeted and heated garage, and a wine cellar occupying a part of what was once, legend has it, a tunneled passageway for Hughes-Peters premarital dalliances.

Below: Artwork and carefully selected bric-a-brac help highlight the seating area of the master bedroom in Mathis’ palatial abode.

Inside the home of singer Johnny Mathis - seen in 1976 (1)

Below: When he can, he strums a guitar during one of the rare quiet moments in his busy schedule. A large mirror covers the ceiling above the bed in master bedroom.

See Johnny Mathis at his Hollywood home back in the 1970s

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Below: Outside, Mathis relaxes with sketch pad on manicured lawn. Statues adorn the patio, and a gazebo provides a secluded rest area.

Other features of the lavishly decorated home include a heated and carpeted garage and a wine cellar.

Johnny Mathis' Hollywood home in the 1970s (6)

At last master of his fate, Johnny Mathis seems to have the best of it all, but as he puts it: “As far as monetary values or objects are concerned, I have just about everything I ever dreamed of.

“And, of course, it isn’t enough, is it? It’s not that you want more, it’s that you want something different. People in show business like myself are constantly spoiled by the rest of the world.

“How spoiled we are is a matter of degree; some are less spoiled than others. We get catered to constantly. People ask our opinions of things we don’t even know anything about.

“If you can keep your equilibrium, which is what my mother and father helped me do, I think you can have some degree of happiness.”

Mathis at his parent's home in San Francisco (1965)

Johnny Mathis performing his hit song, “Chances Are”

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Johnny Mathis performs full-time all the time (1966)

By Mary Campbell — The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) September 4th, 1966

Johnny Mathis starts an interview by nervously explaining that he won’t be talking about such things as hobbies and opinions on world affairs.

”All I do is sing; I love to sing. I spend most of my time trying to tighten up things and learning new material. Performing is a full-time job for me, not something I like to get away from.”

Mathis becomes comfortable, often enthusiastic, as he goes on to explain how he puts a record album together.

First, he chooses a theme (which he refers to as a reason to make the recording), such as his recent LP, ”The Wonderful World of Make-Believe.”

Then he chooses songs that fit. “If a song conveys the message I need, and it has all the qualities that I conjure up in my mind that are important, then I give it a try.”

Vintage Johnny Mathis in 1965

‘Sounds just awful’

Then Mathis and his conductor “block” the song, into a tape recorder. He says ”This sounds just awful. I sing a little, whistle a little.

“We talk, saying things like, ‘Strings come in here.’ Then we send the tape to whoever we’re having arrange the album — that is. writing down the notes and chords for each instrument for each measure.”

If Percy Faith, Bob Farman or Glenn Osser — who have done a lot of work for him — are arranging, Mathis may skip his tape of specific instructions.

About Osser he says, “He’s never done anything that we’ve had to scrap: he’s always been terribly outstanding. If I want a little tempo or a beat, he knows all that element without making the sound callous or blowing the dignity of the song.

“He doesn’t arrange with his own ideas held so high that he forgets about the performer.”

ALSO SEE: Neil Diamond says that songs are life in 80 words or less (1976)

Osser’s wife sometimes is in the act, too. She wrote “I Dream of You, More Than You Dream I Do,’ which Mathis recorded.

The reason the singer does so much of the background work of his recordings is that he — as Global Records — entirely produces them. The records then are issued on the Mercury label.

Vintage Johnny Mathis album cover - I Only Have Eyes for You

Mathis lives in Hollywood but records, as he always has, in the Columbia Records studio in New York. He was with Columbia from 1956 until 1963, when he went with Mercury. These days he rents the studio.

In 1956 Mathis was living in his hometown, San Francisco, had taken voice lessons for five years and had spent one year at San Francisco State College where he had distinguished himself as an athlete.

His first three records, ”Wonderful, Wonderful,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” and “Chances Are,” each sold a million copies.

He now counts 28 gold LPs ($1 million in factory sales). The singles market today is largely rock ‘n’ roll instead of ballads, but Mathis says. “If I could find something as simple and direct as ‘Wonderful, Wonderful,’ I’m sure I’d have another single hit.”

Mathis likes to make records, but doesn’t like to record for TV where he has to do it twice — once taping his appearance and later taping his voice to synchronize with the movements of his lips.

As for live performances, he thinks college concerts are becoming more and more important. ”Nightclubs are almost nonexistent. Anyway, I hate nightclubs. You’re so close to people that they’re staring down your throat. And I can’t take Las Vegas — seven nights a week, two or three shows a night, for a month at a time.

“It’s a drag to do the same medley of hits every night. too, but it is very rewarding after it is over. I can’t believe they are kind enough to applaud each and every song in it.

“My voice is different: I cant sing the way I used to. It has gotten heavier, stronger, larger, end lost a lot of sweetness. I haven’t done anything consciously about changing my voice. All I do is try to produce a tone properly, and then nature takes its course.’

Singer Johnny Mathis

Mathis says that people sometimes tell him that he sounds exactly the same as on an early record. They are hearing a blend of present vocalizing and memory.

One of Mathis’s favorite new songs is ”Dulcinea” from ”Man of La Mancha.” He says, “It has almost as good a lyric as I’ve ever heard.”

”Misty”, a song he has long been associated with, Mathis says he decided to record after hearing a singer he greatly admires. Sarah Vaughn, do it on her album, ”Vaughn and Violins.”‘

At the time he started to sing it for his recording, Mathis says, he was thinking of it as a favor to the composer, Erroll Garner. “But when I started to sing, all the favor disappeared from my mind. I really felt it. I did it in just one take.”

ALSO SEE: Don Ho: Why the ‘Tiny Bubbles’ singer was one of Hawaii’s first superstars in the ’60s

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Comments on this story

4 Responses

  1. Most young people today know Johnny Mathis by his Christmas music. His version of “Winter Wonderland” is my all time favorite Christmas song; I remember it from when I was a kid, and there’s something about it that really brings back memories.

  2. Love reading anything and everything about John Royce Mathis. This article was certainly in depth and loved the pictures and vintage furnishings of his home. The home is beautifully redone now and would love to see those rooms now. Our life has truly been enriched by John’s golden voice. He will be with us forever. 🌹❤️

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