Johnny Mathis, iconic and legendary vocalist of love songs, jazz, tin pan alley, Brazilian music, holiday music and the Great American Songbook, celebrated his 60th Anniversary in Show Business concert at the The Music Center at Strathmore. His glorious tenor voice has lost none of his singular resonant texture and control–a voice that has seduced millions with his velvet, crisp tones. During the 1950s and 1960s, especially, his silken, seductive voice may have been responsible for more love affairs and weddings than any other singer on the planet and, indeed, his influence and popularity has never shown signs of waning.
Mathis has survived and thrived in the music business thanks to a highly-developed talent, strong work ethic and a classy demeanor that befits a legend. Mathis’ inherent, intuitive understanding of the style of any given song, his impeccable and precise phrasing, and his innate sense of musicianship are the trademarks of what has made him such a potent musical artist for all these many years. His legions of fans can attest to his popularity and his numerous musical awards affirm all his many critical accolades.
Johnny Mathis possesses such a unique singing style and charismatic appeal that—like all great talents—it is difficult to analyze (as if using a scientific measuring device!) exactly what it is that make his very essence so appealing. There is an air of mystery and allure in his singing style that defies easy categorization. His songs are like touchstones and each one brings back a personal, subjective memory to the listener. Mathis’ velvety –smooth voice has a precise clarity and control that never seems forced.
Since Mathis has matured into his later years, his wonderful tenor voice now, occasionally, dips into a lower register upon concluding a song; this adds a lovely, mature burnished embellishment of vocalization to his previous tenor tones as he cascades through each note of his songs.
Backed up by a superlative large orchestra and his own group of four personal musicians, Mathis opened his first set with an inventive medley of the affirmative “Life is a Song” and the classic “Stone in Love.”
Mathis then launched into the classic “When I Fall in Love” and sang each line with a languid, lustrous quality of tone.
Next up was a hits medley that had the audience eating out of his hand! “It’s Not for Me to Say” induced sighs of recognition from so many members of the audience as did his illustrious classic “Chances Are” which was performed akin to a musical poetic reverie. Mathis’ voice approaches a thrilling climax only to pull back with a resonant, drawn-out coda.
“Outside Lookin’ In” was a delightful ode to be back inside with his love.
The sultry, sensual hit theme song made famous by Mr. Mathis –“Wild is the Wind” (from the famous film of the same name starring Anna Magnani) was given a distinctly erotic and fresh delivery by Mr. Mathis. This song was a highlight (among many others!)
Mathis next sang a very innovative medley of the wonderfully evocative “Shenandoah” and the idealistic “Let it Be Me.” As he sang the line “I Bless the Day I Found You” with such honest emotion, chills went up my spine (or as Lily Tomlin would say —“I had goosebumps”–!). It often seemed as if Mathis was caressing and holding the emotions of the audience in the palms of his hands as the concert progressed.
Another definitive highpoint of the concert was the exuberant, swinging, jazz-infused number “Let Go.” As Mathis sang the song, musical arrangement was in full-throttle adding intense embellishment to Mathis’ alternating refrain of the opposite dictum to “hold back.” A winner all the way!
Mathis concluded his opening set of musical magic with a striking tribute to composer Henry Mancini – namely, a haunting medley of four Mancini classics that fit Mathis’ voice to perfection. Starting off with what I consider to be one of the most elegiac and poignant songs ever written –“Two for the Road” (from the Audrey Hepburn film of the same name). As Mathis sang each line of the song, the effect was like a vivid tone poem of poignant memories as two lovers journeyed together on the road. Stunning work!
Mathis then launched into a very dramatic, crackling and sharp-edged rendition of “Charade” (from the Audrey Hepburn film of the same name).
Mathis followed-up with the film theme standard “Days of Wine and Roses” (from the Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick film of the same name) and the air in the Music Hall became increasingly rarified.
The concluding song of the Mancini medley (and this set) was the classic “Moon River” (from the Audrey Hepburn film Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Mathis sang the hell out of this song—eschewing any easy sentiment and turning the number into a “tour-de-force” of heightened emotion —-and a radically reconceived re-interpretation.
Between this set and the next, comedian and musician Gary Mule Deer entertained for approximately 25 minutes with a deadpan, very adult, yet expertly crafted set of amusing jokes, witty stories and anecdotes delivered with fresh ingenuity. Mule Deer has been touring with Mr. Mathis for fifteen years and has a vast comedic background where he has quite obviously honed his sharp comedic skills.
Mule Deer sang a tribute to the late Merle Haggard and led the audience through a bouncy “sing-along” of “Momma, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” Very entertaining!
Mathis’ next set of songs began with the light-hearted “Pure Imagination.”
Mathis followed this with a dramatic rendering of the beautiful song ”April in Paris.” As Mathis sang the line “What have you done to my heart?” his sense of touching the emotions was masterly.
A very versatile medley followed with highlights consisting of the oft-performed “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.” This number had a Latin, Bossa-Nova beat which added to the eclectic tone.
Mathis closed the medley with the elusive standard “Stranger in Paradise” –sung with potent resonance.
Mathis’ rendition of “Secret Love” (from the Doris day film Calamity Jane) was revelatory and a totally new interpretation. Mathis sang the song with steadfast, slow deliberation and, consequently, he captured all the subtext of this captivating love song.
Mathis’ rendition of “A Certain Smile” led very naturally into his huge hit—the ebullient “Wonderful, Wonderful.”
Mathis’ cover of “You Make me Feel Brand New” had very strong powerful vocalizing replete with a very upbeat “pop” feel which was nicely abetted by the superb arrangement and playing of his fine orchestra and musicians.
The celebrated hit “Misty” was a definite crowd pleaser and this was followed by the Beatles’ classic tune “Yesterday” (which was delivered in slow, mellifluous tones to great effect).
“My Foolish Heart” was a breezy, lilting joy aided by a very strong instrumental background and a Brazilian beat.
Two haunting songs followed and they were both hymns to loneliness and love –namely, “99 Miles from L.A.” and the Mathis classic “The 12th of Never.” In lesser hands, “The 12th of Never” could be corny and mawkish, but Mathis elevates the lyrics to a heightened degree of emotion and artistry aligned closely with a searing precision in phrasing which pierces right to the heart.
Mathis introduced a very strong influence from his early life in the audience, Mr. Frank Owens, to loud applause.
Mathis concluded his set with the Brazilian sounds and beats of “Mas Que Nada”, “Manha de Carnaval” and –most impressively—the bracing and swinging “Brazil” with the Bossa- Nova rhythms of the full orchestra in high-octane mode.
For his encore, Mathis delivered a plaintive and earnest rendition of the classic “You’ll Never Know” to sustained applause and more than a smidgen of audience adoration and general enthusiastic pandemonium and ovations.
Kudos to the full orchestra and the fine ensemble of musicians that travel with Mr. Mathis. Musical Conductor Scott Lavender is a multiple-talent for he also vocalizes, plays Keyboard and performs all Piano duties. Michael Higgins shone on Guitar. Joe Lizama played Drums to perfection, and Rick Shaw was masterful on Bass.
Barbra Streisand is on record as saying that Johnny Mathis is her favorite singer and many artists have been influenced by his singular vocal style. Is it any wonder? –For Mathis possesses a God-given talent that has inspired generations.
As last night’s concert so clearly indicated, Johnny Mathis is the preeminent musical poet of the heart.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one 20-minute intermission.
Johnny Mathis –The 60th Anniversary Concert Tour played on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda. MD. For information on future Strathmore events call the Ticket Office at (301) 581-5100, or go to their calendar of events.