Johnny Mathis Sang Jewish — Who Knew?
Johnny Mathis got up from the mah-jongg table where he was conducting an interview at his Los Angeles home to answer the telephone: “We’re discussing my career as a cantor,” he quipped.
The 74-year-old Mathis — who has recorded more than 130 albums and has cracked the Billboard charts upward of 60 times — is best known as the crooner of iconic back-seat make-out ballads such as “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say.” But on Aug. 19 at the Skirball Cultural Center, he will be honored by the New York-based Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation for his surprising contribution to Jewish music: a soaring version of the Yom Kippur prayer, “Kol Nidre,” recorded for his 1958 album of religious music, “Good Night, Dear Lord.”
The founders of the Idelsohn Society — including scholar Josh Kun — discovered Mathis’ “Kol Nidre” courtesy of a 7-inch disc, backed by the Percy Faith Orchestra, that arrived in a battered box of donated albums some years ago. The single, they learned, was a European release from the 1958 “Good Night” album, which featured renditions of “Ave Maria” and black spirituals as well as “Kol Nidre,” the Hebrew-language poem “Eli, Eli” and the Yiddish favorite “Where Can I Go?”
“But it is Mathis’ ‘Kol Nidre’ which blew us away,” the founders wrote in the liner notes of “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” which was inspired by Mathis’ passionate “Kol Nidre.” His rendition also appears on the Idelsohn CD, which will be released Sept. 14. While much has been written about how black music has influenced Jewish artists, “Black Sabbath” is perhaps the first to spotlight African Americans covering Jewish songs — Billie Holiday singing “My Yiddishe Momme,” for example, and The Temptations doing a “Fiddler on the Roof” medley.
So why did the African American Mathis, then 23 and at the zenith of his career, choose to record the Aramaic Jewish prayer so crucial to the Jewish Day of Atonement? Settling back down at the mah-jongg table, Mathis traces the endeavor to his childhood in a tolerant, multiracial neighborhood of San Francisco, where his friends included Jewish buddies from the school track team who occasionally took him to shul. He also heard Jewish music courtesy of his music teacher Connie Cox — who took on the talented 13-year-old in exchange for his completing odd jobs around her house — and who introduced him to the cantors-turned-opera singers Robert Merrill and Richard Tucker.
Prominent American Jews helped shape Mathis’ career once he gave up his chance to participate in Olympic trials as a high jumper to record jazz for Columbia Records at age 20. The young artist was “floundering,” in his words, a year later when he was summoned to the offices of Mitch Miller, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had become one of the most influential forces in American popular music.
“Mitch said, ‘I’ve heard what you do, and I don’t like it,’ ” Mathis recalled of that meeting — his memories flowing all the more since Miller had died, at 99, the day before the interview. “Mitch said, ‘I like your voice, but I don’t like the way you’re singing, and I don’t like what you’re singing. … I’d like to record you, but I want you to sing what I want the way I want it.’ ”
In fact, Miller stood beside Mathis in the recording booth, tapping his shoulder to make sure the young artist didn’t improvise. But even if Miller could be “very strong,” as Mathis puts it, he credits the producer for guiding him to the romantic ditties that would make him a superstar.
Mathis went on to record his first No. 1 hit, the dulcet “Chances Are”; to become one of the most prolific American singers of all time, selling more than 180 million albums worldwide; and to set a number of precedents in the music industry. His 1958 greatest-hits album virtually invented that genre and spent almost a decade on the Billboard top albums chart — a feat recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. Mathis’ 1982 album, “Friends in Love,” featured a title duet with Dionne Warwick that became Mathis’s fourth Top 40 single hit in four decades. More recently, Mathis has sung for Presidents George H. W. Bush and Clinton, performed with top symphony orchestras and next month will release a collection of country standards, “Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville,” a tribute to his father, who was born in Texas and taught the young Johnny to sing.
The spiritual music of “Good Night, Dear Lord” was meant as an ode to Mathis’ devout mother; he personally chose the album’s black spirituals from songs he recalled from his childhood African Methodist Episcopal church. But he turned to the prominent bandleader Percy Faith — another son of Jewish immigrants — to advise him on the Jewish selections.
“Kol Nidre” appealed to Mathis, in part, because of the opportunity to showcase the operatic side of his voice, rather than the honeyed tones for which he had become famous. “My interpretation of the song was a mixture of the Muslim call to worship and the [biblical] Jews wandering, lost, in the desert, when their faith was all they had,” he said.
“Recording it was very emotional,” he added. “I lost all of my inhibitions.”
When the Idelsohn Society approached him about his “Kol Nidre,” he said, “I was over the moon.” The album had sold only a moderate number of copies: “Every performer has a little gem, a little pearl they have done that nobody pays much attention to,” he explained. “And then one day, somebody does recognize it, which is so gratifying.”
But don’t expect Mathis to sing the prayer when the society honors him Aug. 19, timed approximately to the 50th anniversary of “Kol Nidre” and the artist’s 75th birthday, on Sept. 30 — part of the society’s concert program, the “Jews on Vinyl” revue.
“My singing now is more limited,” Mathis said; he will no longer sing the rigorous melody in public. Rather, he will perform a song, “One God,” that reflects his attitude about humankind.
“Many are the paths winding their way to one God,” he quotes from that song. “So many children calling to Him by so many different names.”