By Margie & Frank Barron
Just like the title of one of Johnny Mathis’ vast collection of hit songs, the romantic singer’s tribute by the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters was “Wonderful, Wonderful.”
On the dais to tell their stories about Mathis and honor him were Dionne Warwick, Deniece Williams, Wink Martindale, Chuck Southcott, Gary Owens, golf great Amy Alcott, NBA legend Bill Russell, Bernie Gardner, Jay Landers, PPB entertainment chair Jeanne DeVivier Brown, and PPB president Chuck Street who presided over the event filled with warmth and humor.
Celebrated actress and former Miss America (and Catwoman!), Lee Meriwether was also on hand. She and Mathis went to high school together in San Francisco, and she talked about those days and how they’ve remained close friends throughout the years. It was a great afternoon for Meriwether too, because as a longtime member she was inducted into the PPB’s Diamond Circle. “It’s very special to share this day with Johnny,” she told us.
The ballroom was packed for a great luncheon at the Sportsmen’s Lodge. PPB members were delighted to enjoy all the tales that were told, and all the praises bestowed on one of the nicest guys in show business. Then Chuck Street presented Mathis with the Art Gilmore Career Achievement Award for his many distinguished years in radio and television.
“This has been the most embarrassing, humiliating, wonderful afternoon I’ve ever spent,” Johnny gushed at he took the podium. “I love everybody in this room. And it may sound corny, but there are so many extraordinary people that I have been associated with, and you have met some of them today. Can you imagine working with them? They are the best.”
Mathis, ageless at 77, has always been a humble gentleman, but when it was noted that he has achieved nine holes-in-one, the avid golfer let out a hoot that showed the crowd his unbridled pride. Yes, a lot was said about his passion for golf during the afternoon, and Mathis was thrilled “to hear Amy Alcott talk about my golf game. And to have Bill Russell recall all the times he and I spent driving to college sports competitions. The memories are flashing back so fast.”
In high school, Johnny became a star athlete on the track and field team as a high jumper and hurdler, and played on the basketball team. While at San Francisco State College the local papers often referred to him as “the best all-around athlete to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area.”
But he was also a singer, performing in the church choir, school functions, and amateur shows in his community. A Sunday afternoon jam session at the Black Hawk nightclub led to Johnny’s first recording contract with Columbia Records. He gave up his chance to become a member of the USA Olympic Team, electing instead to go New York to record his first album in March of 1956. Columbia placed Johnny under the supervision of producer Mitch Miller, who favored using Johnny’s voice to sing soft, romantic ballads. At his second recording session, in the fall of 1956, Johnny recorded two singles that were to become among his most popular all-time greatest hits: “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not For Me To Say.” More great hits followed, such as “Misty,” “Maria,” “Chances Are,” and “The 12th of Never.” Clips of Mathis singing on classic TV variety shows were shown at the event, proving he is the world’s best romantic balladeer.
A letter from music mogul Clive Davis was read calling Mathis’ voice “perfection.” Also a letter from Barbra Streisand was sent with love and said “it was a dream come true” when she had the opportunity to sing with Mathis. “As far as I’m concerned in the world of music there are a number of good singers, a smaller handful of truly great singers, and then there’s Johnny Mathis.”
Among the many things said at the event, Wink Martindale kidded that Mathis’ love ballads “had a lot to do with the Baby Boom of the ’60s.” Gary Owens noted that he met Mathis in 1959 and remembered “he was the nicest person with the most unique voice I had ever heard. And he’s still the same.” Chuck Southcott, who produced the “Music of Your Life” broadcasts, observed that “when Johnny sings, he holds the mike like a nine iron.”
In his free time, Johnny loves to golf, playing almost every day, because “it’s so wonderful, wonderful.”