Four months after a fire destroyed his Hollywood Hills home of 56 years, Johnny Mathis sounds remarkably upbeat.
"It wasn't burned down to the ground, but there was so much damage that they had to just knock it all down and start all over again," he said, calling from a temporary residence nearby. "That's kind of a strange thing to happen. First time that'd ever happened to me in my life."
Such a tragedy might crush other 80-year-olds, but not Mathis. While he lost a great deal of his wardrobe, "all of the clothes that I'd gone on stage with over the years," many of his mementos survived the fire unscathed. And he's rolling right ahead with a tour that will bring him to Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall on March 31.
This is the legendary crooner's 60th year in show business, a milestone few pop artists can match. A barrier-breaking teen idol whose career and influence stretch from Tin Pan Alley to the modern era (fans of Sam Smith might find much to love in his gentle, lilting tenor), the Texas-born, California-raised Mathis is one of the 20th century's iconic vocalists, with his holiday albums and hits like Chances Are and Wonderful! Wonderful! considered American classics.
If it seems as if he has been out of the spotlight in recent years, that's partly by design. While Mathis has in the past been open about struggles with drugs and alcohol, he has preferred to keep other aspects of his personal life private, including his relationships and sexuality.
But this milestone year is turning out to be one of his busiest in a while. Much of his career is captured in Johnny Mathis: The Singles, a four-disc, 87-song retrospective released last fall, and a box set encompassing all 67 of his albums produced for Columbia Records is in the works for later this year. And as always, he's still playing a handful of dates a year, still crooning for appreciative crowds of lifelong fans.
"In my mom and my dad's era, if you were 80 years old, you were lucky to be alive," he said. "Now, I guess 80 is the new 50."
Before his Clearwater show, Mathis talked about staying active, performing in his 80s and the possibility of writing a memoir. Here are excerpts.
We've celebrated so many golden anniversaries in entertainment over the last couple of years, but 60 years just seems unfathomable. Does it feel like a momentous number to you, or does it feel like just another year?
(laughs) From the time I was about 5 or 6 years old, I'd been singing, first with my dad. He suggested voice lessons, and that's what I've been doing all my life. Fortunately, I've been able to make my living in that way. I had a good record company right from the beginning, and I'm still with them after all these years. I think I may be the only person in the world that's had a tenure this long with any record company.
Most of the people I hang out with who sing love it, and they just want to do it until they die. I still look forward to the performances. And believe it or not, they're all kind of different. Even though you sing the same songs, and maybe you go to the same venues, it just feels completely different every time you go on stage.
Willie Nelson is 82. Tony Bennett is 89. There really is this class of performers in their 80s who are not only viable but really interesting and compelling to watch.
Along the way, everyone's been saying, "Make sure you take care of your voice, because you're going to want to do it the rest of your life." And it's absolutely true.
It's an obvious question, but your longevity begs it: What is your routine? You were a pretty successful athlete. You must take care of yourself.
I was a high jumper and a hurdler, so there wasn't very much physical contact, and so my training routine was pretty much something that I could do all the time. When I was young, of course, I forgot all about my training. And then at about the age of 40, I decided that if I was going to keep my weight down, I said, Well, maybe I should try to do some exercises. I met a guy on the golf course who was a kinesiologist — after I looked up the word, I found out it meant exercise. I started working with him, and that was many years ago. And for all of those years, I've had a routine — five days a week for about an hour.
I don't think you've ever released a memoir, have you?
I have not. With that undertaking, it really requires an awful lot of time. Everybody has come to me and said, "When are you going to do it?" I keep telling them, "Everybody seems to be getting it all wrong." They said, "If you do it, you'll get it the way you want it." I know that it has to be done, eventually. And I'm the person to do it. It probably revolves around meeting the right person — very soon, I'm sure — who I'll have enough trust (in), and enough time to do it. Because I think I should do it. But I'm a little lazy when it comes to stuff like that.
Have you kept notes or journals or ideas? Are the bones of what you would hope to get across gestating in your mind right now?
I think so. Most people don't realize what motivates someone like myself, and a lot of them have it completely wrong, because they think it's money or it's fame. I always wanted to put it straight to the audience that the reason I did — and still do — what I do was because of my dad. If somehow, some way, I can get that across to people who are interested, that's really, really what I want to emphasize.
In many respects, you've preferred to live a private life, where you can just keep the focus on your musical career. But you're at an age now when you basically could retire. Is it tempting to recede from public view, and live a private life off the road?
Yeah. And society has changed so much about all sorts of things that drive people like myself crazy. So I could. But I'm really adamant about trying to fix in the public's mind what motivates someone like myself. Because as you mentioned, I certainly could (retire). But why would I not want to take advantage of the audience that I have, and show them what it's like being 80 years old, and show them how much there is still to be done?
You do about 20 or 30 dates a year, I'm guessing?
When the opportunities come along, you want to take them. For instance, I sang for Obama years ago, when he was just contemplating running for office. I didn't even know who he was. Things like that happen along the way, and you want to leave space for them to happen. So that's about what I do now. I sing enough, and then all of a sudden, somebody wants me to record something, and that comes. You've got to leave space along the way to live, and to do the fun stuff.
Do you still run into people who saw you 60 years ago?
Oh, gosh, yes. And it's such a joy to know that they probably feel a great closeness to me, because they've been supporting me in one way or another, just by listening to my music. It's very important to have people who want to listen. I'm a lucky man.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.