Johnny Mathis' devoted fans are walking on air He's Wonderful! Wonderful!

March 16, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Chances are you know someone who knows someone who adores Johnny Mathis.

Someone like Baltimorean Pat Hester.

"Oh gosh, there seems to be so much about him," she says dreamily. "First, he is good to look at. And that wonderful, soft, soothing voice I have absolutely loved forever."

Saturday evening, Ms. Hester and her friend will hear Mr. Mathis croon his timeless favorites for the first time at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. "I would die if I never got to see Johnny Mathis live," says Ms. Hester, who is 40.

Such is the ardor of Mr. Mathis' fans, a unique crossover crowd that transcends boundaries of age, race and economics. Ms. Hester, for example, got hooked on Johnny Mathis at the foot of her mother's hi-fi. Mom, of course, was also a Mathis maniac.

Barbara Berman-Katz will catch a Mathis concert this week, as well. (All four Mathis concerts scheduled tomorrow through Sunday at the Meyerhoff are sold out.) Mr. Mathis' style is "effortless," she says.

That sense of comfort and ease lends itself to romantic reverie, says the 51-year-old Ms. Berman-Katz. To listen to him is to be "part of a little fantasy world. Close your eyes a little bit and imagine being on a desert island with your lover."

Take that fantasy a little further, and you've got a family. "I probably have two children as a result of his music," says Baltimorean Shirley Russell.

And in a tiny book of devotion put out by the Reflections on Mathis Fan Club based in North Carolina, a New Jersey woman confesses: "Two of my three children were born with Johnny Mathis playing."

These days, Mrs. Russell, 57, turns to her star after a tough day at the office. "When I get home from work, his music goes on and he keeps me calm for the evening," she says. Of course, she will also attend a Mathis concert at the Meyerhoff.

As an active fan, Mrs. Russell keeps tabs on Mr. Mathis' life and times. She even has a nurse friend who kept her informed when Mr. Mathis had hip surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital. Mrs. Russell views her life, marriage and career in light of his own life. "We've had our ups and downs, and I'm sure he did, too," she says.

Mr. Mathis' suave way with a standard is matched only by his ability to gauge his audience, which could account in part for his perennial popularity. Like his admirers, Mr. Mathis, 58, is getting older. The young "make-out king" in the 1950s is now serving the Barcalounger crowd -- but he has his younger admirers, too, perhaps ensuring him an even longer career.

In a letter to Mr. Mathis, care of the Johnny Mathis International Fan Club, an Illinois fan sums it up: "You have been one of my favorite singers since I have been a teen. When I fell in love with my husband 30 years ago, your music was part of our courtship. After 27 years of marriage and two beautiful children, we still listen to your songs -- and our girls have included your compact discs in their music collections also."

And then there's his own devotion to his fans. Over the course of 38 years, Mr. Mathis has gained a reputation as a nice guy. He routinely greets fans after concerts, signs thousands of autographs and once even visited an elementary school where a die-hard fan taught.

The formula has paid off. According to his Rojon production company, Mr. Mathis is one of an elite corps of recording artists with Top 40 hits in each of the last four decades. From 1955 to 1985, he ranked only behind Elvis and Frank Sinatra in number of albums sold. The album "Johnny's Greatest Hits" spent 490 weeks on Billboard's top L.P. chart, earning a mention in the "Guinness Book of World Records."

While not as visible as Deadheads, Mr. Mathis' fans are as loyal. In newsletters, they trade Mathis trivia and gossip, discuss his hobbies -- golf and cooking -- and plan vacations around his concerts here and abroad. His international fan club, operated through his production company, has 13,000 members.

Mathis fans run to female, primarily. But men are allowed, too. Ken Schreiber, host of the "Echoes of the Past" radio program on WTMD-FM (89.7), remembers his quandary as a teen when he had only enough allowance to buy one of two Mathis singles released simultaneously. What would it be, "Wonderful, Wonderful," or "It's Not for Me to Say"? He bought one and later scraped up the change to buy the other.

"Everybody knew he had an unbelievable voice," Mr. Schreiber says. "That's the thing about Johnny Mathis. His voice has not changed. If anything, it's gotten better."

Mr. Mathis has weathered "disco, the Beatle invasion, funk and through everything else continues to sell to his audience," says Ken Hudson, who works at Music Man Oldies in Catonsville. In the store, Mr. Mathis' evergreen singles, such as "Misty" and "Chances Are," sell well, Mr. Hudson says. "He's no Snoop Doggy Dogg."

There are "a lot of people who simply like good pop singing," Mr. Hudson says. "Look at the comeback of Tony Bennett. [Mr. Mathis] is a real professional who can stand in front of an orchestra and hold on, doing it with style, grace and verve."

Here are the addresses of two Johnny Mathis fan clubs:

Johnny Mathis

International Fan Club

P.O. Box 2066

Burbank, Calif. 91507

Reflections on Mathis

P.O. Box 181

Jacksonville, N.C. 28541

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