I've never been a Johnny Mathis fan. Other than admiring Steven Spielberg's use of Chances Are in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a December weakness for Sleigh Ride, Mathis has always been akin to drinking honey out of the jar. Pop heir to Nat King Cole in the late 1950s, Mathis wasn't much of a jazz artist and was way too expressive and swing-less for savvy pop. So when the newly remastered Rapture and Romantically arrived on a two-CD set from Collectors' Choice Records, I felt as though I had received a bouquet of artificial flowers.
All that changed after I slipped on the first CD. I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or what, but Mathis in 1962 and 1963 sounded great. On Rapture, Mathis has a heart. And pacing. And control. The same goes for Romantically. Don't get me wrong. It's still Mathis, so the fare here is a still a tad rich. But if you're fond of early-1960s pop, you'll hear a musical intelligence and moderation from Mathis that likely will come as a surprise.
Much of the credit goes to arranger Don Costa [pictured]. The studio guitarist-orchestrator came to prominence in the mid-1950s when he was hired by ABC-Paramount as the start-up label's A&R chief. Costa was the pen behind Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme at ABC-Paramount and other artists such as Lloyd Price and Paul Anka. Frank Sinatra hired Costa in 1962, and he wound up arranging quite a few of the Chairman's champion swingers for nearly 15 years. But between gigs at ABC and Reprise, Costa worked for Columbia. That's where we find him on these two albums.
Without mincing words, Costa's string work for Mathis is sensational. Rather than merely create lush gardens for Mathis to run through, Costa's writing for strings and (and choir on some tracks) rises up to Mathis' delivery level, cushioning the singer's power and taking the edge off his high-end vibrato.
Whether it's Autumn in New York, Moonlight in Vermont or In Wisconsin from Romantically—or Stars Fell on Alabama and Stella By Starlight from Rapture, Mathis gets inside the lyrics here. On many songs, he also includes rarely-heard intros. Mathis on these discs is at the height of his vocal power. Which can be a good and bad thing, depending on how you feel. But with Costa along as the designated orchestrator, Mathis rarely gets too carried away. In most cases, these are grand-slam executions.
What I like most about the arrangements and Mathis on this set is the early 1960s pop sound. It's the dawn of the neo-pop era, when Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole and others were reaching beyond Tin Pan Alley to the stage, screen and new songwriters for material. (Dig Friendly Persuasion, for example, or All That Is Missing.) Be warned, though. This Mathis set isn't for everyone. We're still talking about a voice that curls cute each time it rises.
But if you can suspend your pre-conceived notions about the singer and just enjoy what you hear, you'll find yourself magically transported back to an age when cars had color, people took weekends off and a garden hose offered relief from the heat.
JazzWax tracks: Johnny Mathis: Rapture and Romantically is available on CD here. It's a swell collection and covers a wide range of territory, from standards to songs like Too Young to Go Steady and The Sound of Music. This set is just the first of five double CDs of Mathis to be released by Collectors' Choice. Not being a Mathis scholar, I can't tell you how this set compares to others. I can only say thus far that these CDs did alter my impressions of the singer, who for too long has been written off by most jazz and jazz-minded pop fans.