Johnny Mathis, he of the vocal velvet and distinctive purr, sounds today almost uncannily close to the way he did when he first stirred up the music world in the mid-1950s. The singer has a new album out this month, adding to his remarkable 130-plus discography with a laid-back, lushly sung collection of country classics, "Let It Be Me — Mathis in Nashville."
This week, he marks his 75th birthday with a concert in Baltimore. Before heading on the road, he called from his California home for an interview:
Question: "Country music" and "Johnny Mathis" are not often uttered in the same sentence. What was it like putting together a country album?
Answer: You know, when I was 5 or 6 years old, the songs my dad played for me and sang for me were country. He had the radio tuned to country music. Over the years, I've sung a few songs of that genre. It was a hoot to go to Nashville to do the album. I love this music. I listened to everybody's recordings of these wonderful songs, but once you put your earphones on in the studio, you forget about everyone else and just start singing.
Q: Are there any other repertoire surprises up your sleeve?
A: If I keep on recording, we'll have to make up some genres.
Q: One of your earliest albums, in 1958, was a departure from the pop field. It was devoted to religious music, including spirituals and hymns. And you did an extraordinary performance of the Hebrew chant, "Kol Nidre," which has just received fresh attention.
A: When I did the religious album, it was done with my mom and dad in mind. I get emotional about that. I got a nice award last month from a new organization [the California-based Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation], which has released a nice collection of people of color singing songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, which I also did on that album. Over the years, if you live long enough, you get to sing in many languages. [The society's just-out recording is called "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations."] I studied with a lady who was an opera singer and I also listened to operatic music. That helped me later on not to feel intimidated singing in other languages.
Q: Did you ever want to sing classical music?
A: Early on, I sang some of the "Bachianas Brasileiras" [by Heitor Villa-Lobos]. I was a kid. I didn't care if it came off or not. But I never got the finished product where I wanted it to be.
Q: What's the best thing you've done to preserve your voice?
A: I started very early. My teacher said, 'You will probably want to sing for the rest of your life.' So the first thing I did was learn to take care of my voice, which mostly is just a matter of don't do this, don't do that. Twenty years ago, I met a kinesiologist on the golf course. After I got home, I looked up what that meant. I worked out with him for 15 or 16 years, and, after his death, I found a new trainer. Exercise seems to be the thing that works for me.
Q: How does eating figure in. I ask since you're known as quite a cook.
A: Mom and dad were professional cooks, along with other things they were doing to support a big family. I learned to cook when I was young. Now I adopt my diet to my cholesterol level. That helps a great deal. When I gave up alcohol and other bad habits, a doctor told me I would have a yen for something sweet, and I do. But I make some cookies without putting all the fun stuff in them.
Q: Your career has spanned such a volatile part of pop music history, so many changes of style and taste. What has it been like inside the business all this time?
A: Over the years, I've tried to make sure I didn't get too far away from what I really love to do, which is singing beautiful melodies. I tried out a lot of raucous stuff. But the guy I respect the most, guitarist Gil Reigers, who has been sitting next to me for 40 years, will patiently listen to me try something, and then say, 'Yeah, John, but I still like when you sing this,' And I'll go back to my little place, where I'll probably be at for the rest of my life.
Q: For your 75th birthday on Thursday, you'll be performing here in Baltimore. Is that how you envisioned spending your milestone?
A: To celebrate my birthday onstage is exactly what I want to be doing. And I love going out to the restaurants in Baltimore. The seafood in Baltimore is just the best in the world. Along the way, you wonder what it will be like at this age or that age. Well, finally, I'm that age. And to be able to sing to an audience is what keeps me energized. I've been very lucky. In the long run, the happiness, the real joy comes when you are capable of doing what you hope you can do.
Q: One connection to Baltimore that a lot of us were not expecting is that you ended up being a substantial part of John Waters' recent book, "Role Models."
A: Isn't that amazing? Of course, I was very aware of his work in films. We've all looked wide-eyed at them and gone, 'Oh, my goodness.' But when he came backstage to meet me a few years ago, I didn't know what his reason was. To be in his book was very surprising — and gratifying.
If you go
Johnny Mathis will be in concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For ticket information, call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.