Gold: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, a new offering from Columbia/Legacy that’s being released very soon now, is part of a larger effort that’s been put together to commemorate the long and notable career of Johnny Mathis. It joins the already released A 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration album, and both tie in with an upcoming PBS special.
The album is a compilation of recordings generated during the course of his long career, which means of course that the Johnny Mathis of 2006 will inevitably be compared to his youthful self in terms of quality of voice. It’s a valid approach since this is, after all, a 50 year commemorative album, and it gives fans a chance to revisit his sound in different eras.
Not surprisingly, among the songs on this album are some that also appeared on Johnny’s Greatest Hits, which he released in 1958. In retrospect, that might have seemed a surprising step for so young an artist, but by then he had the hits to back it up. After being discovered and helped along by Mitch Miller (yes, the sing- along guy), who acted as producer for many of his early recordings, he had generated a number of best-sellers by that time. That 1958 album is said to have been the first “greatest hits” collection ever generated by any artist, and it remained on the Billboard charts for a record 490 weeks.
Among those early hits were “Chances Are”, “It’s Not For Me To Say” and “Wonderful, Wonderful”, and those songs and others from that same era are part of this new 50th Anniversary album. These recordings from the late 1950s, in most cases backed by Ray Coniff and his orchestra (and in all cases sung by Johnny in his full, youthful, vibrant voice) will reacquaint you with many of those tunes and how he warbled them. His distinctive vibrato and styling are impossible to mistake for anyone else.
I found it a little surprising that the first dozen or so songs were all from the late 1950s, and then the rest of the songs on the album are from 1986 or later — a gap of over 25 years. Mathis was active during that period, but was shifting genres and looking for new avenues. He also began doing a number of duets, including one that became a big hit, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”, with Deniece Williams. None of that period is covered on this album. Instead, it picks up again with an older Mathis, starting with “True Love”, where he’s backed up by Henry Mancini, and continuing on through his collaboration with Sergio Mendes, “So Many Stars”, both recorded in the late 1980s. His voice is still very familiar and sounds pretty good, although a little more subdued than the younger version. That’s followed by Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood”, recorded in 1990, and I had a difficult time evaluating the vocal on this, because I didn’t listen to it for very long. Maybe that seems unfair, but this tune has always been one of my favorites as an instrumental, and I just cringed when I heard him sing it. (Although according to Johnny’s album notes, Ellington offered the song to him.)
The last two cuts on the album are something a little different. On “The Shadow Of Your Smile”, recorded just this year, “smooth jazz” reigns supreme as Johnny is accompanied by Dave Koz on sax and Chris Botti on trumpet, and both have a number of long and extensive solos that cut back on Johnny’s portion of the song. Still, though, it all works pretty well and is a pleasant listen.
The album closes with Johnny’s duet with Ray Charles on “Over The Rainbow”, and this one just didn’t work in my opinion. I felt that the styles of the two singers are too different for them to mesh. It was recorded a couple of years back and according to Johnny’s album notes they did actually sit side by and side and record this, so it wasn’t one of those virtual things that are often put together. (And he sounded surprised that Ray was actually there, which I found curious.)
Overall, a lot of good listening to be found on this new release.
Johnny Mathis – Gold: A 50th Anniversary Celebration