The nastiest and worst traffic jam I’ve ever experienced in my life was after reviewing a 1970’s Johnny Mathis appearance at Melody Fair. Yes, the traffic jam that actually closed down the New York State Thruway during the Woodstock Festival was bigger, but I was lucky enough to escape the nastiest part of that. Not so, the snarling Mathis traffic snarl.
That will happen when there are one or two generations of American parents who can testify that their kids could be called “Johnny’s Kids” – kids conceived as a direct consequence of romantic feelings inspired by Mathis records.
No one came close to the androgynous arias of Mathis in his heyday as a propagator of American romance in the ’50s. Those singles still sound wonderful, wonderful – “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “Chances Are,” ‘The Twelfth of Never,” “Wild is the Wind,” “A Certain Smile.” It’s great pop music of its rather singular ilk.
After that, this full four-disc box set history of Mathis singles is hit and miss, with a depressing amount of miss. For every “Small World,” – which introduced Stephen Sondheim lyrics to Top 40 radio – you get four or five Tupperware containers of cold, congealed schmaltz that few should be asked to digest.
By the time you get to the fourth and final disc, you want to rip the glockenspiel right out of arranger D’Arneille Pershing’s kitschifying hands, but the songs are passable and the master of tremulous upper-register romantic throb is still in tip-top vocal shape. His chops never seem to have left him.
This is not the sort of American pop music that nostalgists love to reminisce about seriously, but no one ever did this sort of thing better than Mathis in his prime. He was, in fact, his own “sort of thing.” Just ask anyone who’s ever been caught in a post-Mathis concert traffic jam.
– Jeff Simon