It was 1957 when 21-year-old Johnny Mathis recorded the romantic ballad “Chances Are.”
When the legendary singer performs at Shea’s Performing Arts Center on April 15 – more than 60 years later – it’s almost guaranteed he will perform his signature song as he has thousands of times before. And that’s fine with him.
“A big thing in my life is trying not to get too sarcastic about the hit songs and having to sing them so often,” Mathis said during a recent phone conversation. “I try to sing them in a way reminiscent of when they were first done. I was very fortunate, most of the songs I have had success with, at least the ones the public remembers, were pretty good.”
That’s an understatement.
"Chances Are," originally released as a single, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop charts where it stayed for 28 consecutive weeks. It's one of three songs - along with “Misty” and “It’s Not for Me To Say” – in the Grammy Hall of Fame. He has recorded 79 original albums and six Christmas albums that have resulted in 50 hits on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart and nearly that same number on the pop charts. His 1958 "Johnny's Greatest Hits" album - which launched the idea of the greatest hits compilation - spent 490 consecutive weeks on the Billboard charts (or nearly a decade). All leading to his Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2003.
But, Mathis will quickly tell you, his most popular songs are not his biggest seller. That distinction goes to the 1978 single “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” a duet he sang with Deniece Williams.
“For about five or six years, Deniece and I performed that song together. We went all over the place wherever it was popular. Then her career took her in different directions and I haven’t sung that song for years,” he said. “Certain songs, ‘Chances Are,’ ‘Misty’ – they were never as popular as ‘Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.’ But the ones the public remembers are the ones I sing nightly.”
His 62-year recording career has been carefully curated for the massive new box set, “Johnny Mathis The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection.” (Mathis spent 59 years with Columbia.) In addition to the hits, there's also previously unreleased material including the 1982 album "I Love My Lady" he recorded with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. (That "lost" album will be released on smoky vinyl for Record Store Day on April 21.) A video on the singer’s website (johnnymathis.com) captures the moment when he first opened the collection and his joy is palpable.
“I just gave a big hallelujah,” Mathis responded when asked what he was thinking. Literally holding his career in his hands in the form of the 68-disc set, he said he was grateful when he realized singers who were very important to him like the legendary Nat King Cole (“He was very loving, very supportive of me”), had recordings that have been lost forever.
“I think about that and how fortunate I am,” Mathis said. “I have been so grateful to the powers that be that I still have all of these wonderful memories of my career in a boxed set that I can listen to and reminisce.”
As a boy, Mathis was taught to sing by his father, Clem. (The first song he learned was “My Blue Heaven.”) When he was 13, his father got him a vocal teacher who Mathis credits for his ability to still sing today.
"Fortunately I’m able to do vocally what I’ve doing in the past," he said. "Working with her I learned a lot about how to produce the sounds I wanted vocally. When you do that you love it, it’s so infectious to you. I haven’t gotten over that yet. I hope I never do. I love singing.”
Mathis has not stopped singing or recording since he released his first album "Johnny Mathis: A New Sound in Popular Song" in 1956. His elegant voice allows his songs to transcend time and trends, making everything he sings a "Johnny Mathis song." His most recent studio album, “The New American Songbook,” came out in September and was produced by Clive Davis and producer/musician Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
That recording brought Mathis full circle in a way. Early in his career he was influenced by his vocal heroes like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. Recording the “New American Songbook” he was reminded of his influence on a younger generation, including Edmonds. “Growing up in my house, you can’t imagine it without Johnny Mathis playing,” Edmonds said in a making-of video. “It’s a beautiful voice, it’s almost heavenly.”
The album also is an extension of what Mathis has done throughout his career: giving voice to the songs of the day.
“If you are going to sing the songs of the day it’s nice when you get some really good stuff to sing,” Mathis said about the songs on the album including “Hello” by Adele, “Happy” by Pharrell and “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. (“He has a glorious voice, a God-given voice,” Mathis said.)
When Mathis returns to Buffalo, he is continuing a tradition that has seen him perform here regularly from the early days of his career in such venues as the old Melody Fair to recent shows in the Seneca Niagara Casino and multiple concerts with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in Kleinhans Music Hall.
Expect to see him again -- at a youthful 82, Mathis plans to keep singing and touring.
“I got into the habit of exercising and I’ve kept it up. Thankfully all of the people who suggested it would help my career, it really has,” said Mathis, an avid golfer who was a star athlete in high school. “I love it very much and I hope to continue. The most difficult part of what I do now is traveling, it’s very tiring. I’m a little cantankerous about getting up early. Otherwise, I’m having a ball,” he laughed.
7:30 p.m. April 15 at Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $50 to $125 (box office, Ticketmaster).