Experience has taught Johnny Mathis that technical perfection isn’t necessarily the destination when it comes to singing.
“I have kind of gotten over my prudishness about singers not producing tones properly,” he said. “That’s what was drilled into my head by my voice teacher: If you don’t produce the proper tones, you’ll lose your voice from so much wear and tear on your vocal cords. He was pretty adamant about it.
“But over the years, I’ve listened to people who don’t hit those tones properly, singers I really love, and they haven’t lost their voices.”
Mathis has put more than 80 albums on various Billboard charts since 1957. More than 20 landed in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200. In 1957, he had three Top 10 singles: “Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say” and “The Twelfth of Never.”
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He has sold more than 350 million albums worldwide; in 2003, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
On Sept. 21, Mathis will perform the first concert of the 2013-14 season at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto. The show is sold out.
He will turn 78 at the end of the month, and though they may not be tone-perfect, he says he still can deliver the songs that made him one of the most popular singers of his era.
“Vocally, everything is the same, more or less,” he said. “A few high notes have gone by the wayside. The difference these days is I spend more time physically getting in shape.
“When I was young, I didn’t have to worry about my physical situation. Now…I work out five days a week for an hour and a half with a trainer. I have for the past 20 years. That’s the thing that gets me most prepared for my performances, is exercise.
“Fortunately, the big hit records I have are still in my vocal comfort zone. People love to hear those songs when they see me and get in that frame of mind, and, as I said, vocally they’re easy for me. I don’t have any problem singing them over and over, as I have to do.”
He has curbed his touring schedule over the years, he said. Instead of two to three shows a week for several weeks, he does no more than two a week, with a week off in between. Nonetheless, he and his core band have little trouble delivering a two-hour show, including an intermission, without rehearsals.
“I spend time before the show making sure what I’m going to sing for that evening is comfortable for me vocally,” he said. “But if I need to change something, the rhythm section I have has been with me for a while, some for 40 years. So we know each other pretty well and can do things spontaneously and have them stay right with me.
“I really like to surprise the audience and sing some songs for them that are in the same genre (as the hits) and might be of interest to them. Then of course I love Brazilian music. I traveled to Brazil when I was very young and fell in love with the music. So I’ll sing some Brazilian music.
“I still have the urge to sing some different things to keep my interest level up, as long as it’s not something I like but no one else is going to like. That gets you into trouble.”
Mathis said his voice has been influenced by an array of styles and singers. Asked to mention those he most admires, he rattles off a list of legends: Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstine. It has also been influenced by his early schooling in opera.
“I grew up listening to so many opera singers,” he said. “The voice teacher I had was a lady who sang in the opera. As part of her introducing me to all kinds of music, we sang lots of opera. I’ve recorded a lot of stuff that borders on operatic music.
“In five to six weeks, I’ll be doing a seminar for a Jewish organization that wants to play some recordings I did in Hebrew when I was about 20 years old.”
But even those with operatic voices can be guilty of being too polished, said Mathis, who, contrary to what he was taught early on, thinks emotion is more important than perfection.
“There are some people in the operatic field I’ve listened to recently who are technically perfect and who sing beautifully,” he said. “But there’s a lack of soul, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not really euphoric for me.”