An Ageless Voice

Johnny Mathis performs for the opening of the Lewis museum

Music

June 23, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The velvety voice on the other end -- its tone warm and crisp -- is so familiar.

It is the voice of Johnny Mathis, a nearly 50-year recording veteran, known as the "world's greatest romantic singer." Calling from his home in Hollywood, the 69-year-old crooner sounds surprisingly youthful.

These days, the man still looks good, too: The hair is dark, full and feathered, the skin bronzy and smooth.

"It's not easy getting old," Mathis says, chuckling. "I've been exercising a lot for the past 10 years. I grew up playing basketball, hurdling, playing tennis. So the thought of exercise isn't foreign to me. And I had some good parenting."

Aside from his impressive physical condition, the Texas-born performer still has pipes of gold. The rich timbre, the immaculate diction, the tremulousness -- Mathis' singing style is as resonant today as it was back in '57 when he topped the pop charts with his satiny signature, "Chances Are."

He performs tomorrow at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at a gala event to celebrate the Saturday opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. He'll also perform at the Meyerhoff on Saturday night.

His latest CD, Isn't It Romantic: The Standards Album, has been critically well-received. The 10-song set features evergreens by Rodgers and Hart (the title cut), the Gershwins ("Love Is Here to Stay") and Harold Arlen ("Over the Rainbow," an affecting duet Mathis recorded with Ray Charles shortly before the soul legend died last June).

Unlike Boz Scaggs, Aaron Neville and Rod Stewart on their recent standards projects, Mathis is very much in his element on Isn't It Romantic -- his sensitive vocals cushioned in elegant, tasteful arrangements by Jorge Calandrelli. For the San Francisco-raised pop legend, such an album, though belated, isn't at all out of the ordinary.

"Oh, I've been recording standard songs all my life," Mathis says. "These are songs that somehow fell through the cracks. These are songs that I didn't record but have performed in concert over the years. The one I really like is 'Cottage for Sale.' I grew up listening to Billy Eckstein sing that."

"Dindi" is another highlight, a swooning, romantic gem that receives a tender reading from Mathis. He also beautifully renders "The Rainbow Connection" (yes, the song from The Muppet Movie) as if it were written especially for him. Unlike the orchestral arrangements on some of Mathis' early recordings, the ones throughout Isn't It Romantic never threaten to take the focus off the singer's voice, an instrument he has carefully maintained over the years.

"When you get older, you have to pay more attention to the voice and take better care of it," he says. "I don't do the long tours like I used to. I gave up cigarettes in my 20s, and I gave up alcohol about 15 years ago. I gave up certain foods. When you get down to it, you're trying to save your life, trying to live a little longer."

Mathis' touring schedule these days isn't too extensive. He performs maybe two or three times a month. And he tries to record an album every two years or so. When he's not on stage or in the studio, the performer is a homebody, relishing time with close friends and family in the Hollywood Hills home he's owned for more than 40 years. Mathis loves to cook and is passionate about his golf game.

"I think the fact that I sing songs that are familiar to people keeps me around," Mathis says. "I haven't had any major vocal problems and that has allowed me to sing for a long time. I've been very lucky with my voice and the fact that people still like to hear it."

See Johnny Mathis tomorrow and Saturday nights with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For ticket availability, contact the Meyerhoff box office at 410-783-8000 or visit www.baltimoresymphony.org.

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