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The Music Diaries | Olympic trials or recording contract? - Johnny Mathis made tough decision to pursue music

Published:Friday | August 12, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black

Wherever Johnny Mathis is today, he must be remembering the year 1956, when he was faced with making one of the most difficult decisions anyone could ever experience.

Mathis was called to the Olympic trials with the aim of representing the United States of America in high jump at the Olympic Games of that year, while at the same time, he was offered a recording contract with the larger-than-life Columbia Records.

Luckily, though, this was not like being called to serve in the Vietnam War, which was compulsory. Mathis had a choice, but it was tougher than 'rockstone'.

According to him, "I got an invitation to go to the Olympic trials, and in that same week, I got a telegram from an executive at Columbia Records which said, 'Come back to New York. We want to sign a contract and make a recording.' All that happened in the week I was to try out for the high jump at the Olympics in 1956," Mathis said.

He had to decide on whether to go to the Olympic trials or to keep his appointment in New York City to make his first recording since time constraints would not allow him to do both.




His father, Clem, to whom he was very close, helped him to make that crucial decision. They both agreed that Johnny's future and best interests would be better served with a recording career, and so Johnny forewent the opportunity of becoming a member of the USA Olympic team to Melbourne, Australia, in November 1956. It was a decision he never regretted.

The multitalented youngster would certainly have loved to fulfill his two dreams in life - being an Olympian and a recording star. After all, the San Francisco native, born in Texas on September 30, 1935, was an amazing talent who became well known for his singing ability and as a star athlete while attending George Washington High School.

Later in 1954, while being enrolled as an English and physical education student at San Francisco State College, Mathis repeatedly cleared the high jump bar at 6'5.5" despite standing only 5'7" tall. His clearance was only two inches short of the Olympic record at the time.

On the musical front, Mathis was creating waves at several nightclubs in the San Francisco area. In late 1955, while performing at a spot called Dee's 440 Club, an A&R Columbia Records executive spotted him and sent the now-famous telegram to his record company: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts."

The executive eventually sent for Mathis to start arrangements for his first recording session and to record his first album in March of 1956.

Titled Johnny Mathis: A New Sound in Popular Song, it was a collection of jazz-oriented renditions, which enjoyed moderate success.

After realising Mathis' great potential as a balladeer, Columbia placed him under the supervision of producer Mitch Miller.




Mathis' second recording session in the fall of 1956 yielded two singles, Wonderful Wonderful and It's Not For Me To Say, which became two of his all-time greatest hits, riding high on the Billboard pop charts in July 1957.

He got into the movie world shortly after when he was signed by MGM studios to perform the latter song and act as a tavern piano-bar singer in the film Lizzie.

Thereafter, Mathis has appeared in countless movies, either acting or performing the theme song.

These successes were followed by his first number one single: the monumental hit titled Chances Are, in which he sings:

"Chances are 'cause I wear a silly grin/

The moment you come into view/

Chances are you think/

I'm in love with you/

Just because my composure/ Sort of slips the moment that your lips meet mine/

Chances are you think/

My heart's your valentine."

In short order, Mathis became a household name and a national celebrity as he continued to release albums of beautiful, romantic ballads, many of which sold in the millions.

His impact can easily be measured by the fact that although rock and roll was in full swing with artistes like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Ricky Nelson, he still managed to be voted the No. 1 male singer for 1960 in a major US poll conducted among teenagers. Surprisingly, they became some of Mathis' most ardent followers, although he never sang a rock and roll song.

Suddenly, he was in great demand on records as well as on stage, touring extensively throughout Australia and Great Britain.

The disappointment of missing the 1956 Summer Olympics Down Under may have been agonisingly traumatic for Mathis, especially when he considers how close he was to the men's Olympic high jump record of 2.04 metres, or about 6'7". The event was eventually won by Charles Dumas of the USA with a height of 2.12 metres, or about 6'10".

Yet Mathis was never daunted and has never lost his enthusiasm for sports. He became a well-known fitness fanatic who continued to compete in athletics and basketball.

In later years, he became an avid golfer and has hosted several Johnny Mathis Golf Tournaments in the UK and the US.

Mathis took great consolation from his other enduring hits like A Certain Smile, The Twelfth of Never, No Love, Gina, I'm Coming Home, What Will My Mary Say, and Fallen.

After a 21-year break from the No. 1 spot, Mathis returned in 1978 in duet with Deniece Williams to record the chart-topping Too Much, Too Little, Too Soon.

With some 100 albums, two Grammy nominations, two No. 1 singles, an album recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running on the Billboard charts, and 60 years in the music business with hits in almost every decade, Mathis remains the longest-serving entertainer in the business.

On January 14, 2016, at age 80, the man dubbed by musicologists as the master of love balladry, performed to a sold-out audience as part of his 60th anniversary concert tour.