Anyone looking for the secret to longevity should consult Johnny Mathis. But be prepared. The music legend may suggest getting up at four in the morning and heading to the gym.
That’s what Mathis has done on weekdays for decades, and it’s a routine that clearly works for him. Today, at 83, he’s as trim, dapper and velvet-voiced as he was in 1955, when a Columbia Records producer caught him at a gig in his native San Francisco, and sent a now famous telegram to his office: “Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”
They did, and Mathis has been churning out albums (more than 80) and touring ever since. His latest “Voice of Romance” tour hits the NYCB Theatre at Westbury for one night only on July 13.
His now 63-year career makes him Columbia Records’ longest-running recording artist, having racked up hits like “Chances Are,” “Misty” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” (all in the Grammy Hall of Fame), plus popular themes for films and TV series. (“Family Ties,” anyone?) A 2017 album of contemporary covers includes hits by Adele, Bruno Mars and others.
He spoke by phone with Newsday.
I grew up with your records. My parents are superfans—they’d see you every time you hit Westbury. What’s it like to return there? It must feel familiar.
There are maybe three venues I play that are in the round, like this. It’s interesting. I get a chance to get close to everybody by walking around…in circles. (He chuckles.) It’s a little more intimate than a proscenium theater where everyone’s on one side just looking at you. And it helps me as a performer, because it makes me looks like I’m doing something. (He laughs harder now.) Other than just singing.
You’ve always been athletic. (Mathis trained as a hurdler and high-jumper in college.) What’s your fitness routine?
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I’m a golfer and…I met a guy on the golf course who was a kinesiologist. I went home and looked up the word, and found out he dealt with exercise. I decided to take advantage of his knowledge. That was about 35 years ago. I worked with him five days a week. Unfortunately he passed away not too long ago. But he got me into the routine, and I’ve continued ever since. I get up at 4 in the morning, go to the gym at 5:30 and I’m home at 6:45.
You do that five days a week? Still?
Well…yeaaah. Y’know…that’s what I DO! I go onstage and have to look right.
Where does that discipline come from?
I think my dad, who I absolutely adored—he was always very much like, “Well, this is what you do, son, this is all a part of being in show business.” I loved my mom and dad. They had seven kids. (His mother worked as a housekeeper, his father, a handyman.) They made it possible for me to take voice lessons, which was expensive. So I wanted to cooperate in any way I could, to enhance my lessons, and a lot of that had to do with exercise. I found that when I exercised, my voice was in better shape. And I didn’t have to vocalize so much.
Is it harder to hit the gym now that you’re older?
It’s all about what’s important for you. And singing is a very, very, very, very, very, very big part of my life. I found out what works. And I stick to it.
Your house in the Hollywood Hills was destroyed by fire a few years back. You’d lived there nearly 60 years. How’d you deal with that?
I happened to be away, and the house smoldered. The electrical system shorted out. I came back home to find it totally black inside. Just charred completely. Now I’m talking to you from my brand-new house. It’s wonderful. Sometimes bad things turn out to be not so bad.
I guess that’s fitting for someone who sang “Wonderful, Wonderful.” You know, besides your biggest hits, the songs of yours that pop into my head every so often are “Small World” from “Gypsy,” which was on one of my parents’ albums—and the theme from the film “Same Time, Next Year.”
I love singing movie songs. [Sometimes] you get to be in the movie! I got a chance to sing in a couple of movies, show my face, and that was fun. I wasn’t very good at it. But I’ve always enjoyed being part of a film.
What about your own favorites—tunes you have a fondness for?
Mmm…(He pauses.). Hmm… (He pauses again, then chuckles.) I like ‘em all.