Stars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were established enough to survive the rock-and-roll revolution, but the arrival of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry et al., in the late-1950s did no favors for most of the artists who occupied the top of the pre-rock-and-roll pop charts. Names like Perez Prado, Gogi Grant and Guy Mitchell, for instance, have been largely lost to history, though one young newcomer working in a style far more “square” than that of his contemporaries managed to survive and even thrive. Born on this day in 1935, Johnny Mathis went on to become one of the most successful recording artists of all time.
Mathis was born in Gilmer, Texas, and raised in San Francisco the fourth of seven children. He showed an aptitude for music very early on, and he began his formal, classical voice training at the age of just 13. As promising as his future in music seemed to be, however, there was real question during his teens as to whether he should devote himself to sports instead. As a four-letter athlete at George Washington High School, Mathis broke a high-jump record previously held by NBA legend Bill Russell, and while a student at San Francisco State University, he was invited to the U.S. trials in track and field for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. With his father’s guidance, however, Mathis chose to dedicate himself to what was beginning to look like a very real chance of success as a musician.
While doing weekend gigs in various San Francisco nightclubs the previous year, Mathis came to the attention of George Avakian, head of jazz A&R for Columbia Records. As the widely circulated legend has it, after hearing Johnny Mathis for the very first time, Avakian wired a telegram to Columbia headquarters reading, "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.” After Johnny passed on his chance at making the Olympic team, he headed to New York to record his debut album.
While that first album had little impact, Mathis’s next recordings, under the supervision of Columbia’s Mitch Miller, established him as a star. The singles “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not For Me To Say” sailed up the pop charts in the summer of 1957, quickly followed that same year by the hits “Chances Are,” “Twelfth Of Never” and, in the next five years, by 13 more top-40 hits, including “A Certain Smile” (1958), “Misty” (1959) and “Gina” (1962). So popular during the dawn of rock and roll was the smooth pop stylist Johnny Mathis that his 1958 album Johnny’s Greatest Hits spent an astonishing 490 weeks on the Billboard magazine album charts—a record finally broken by Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon in 1982.