When you begin a conversation with legendary singer Johnny Mathis, you expect to be talking about No. 1 songs, not holes in one, but the man behind such powerful songs as “Wonderful, Wonderful,” “Chances Are” and “Misty” is just as comfortable speaking about the links as he is his incredible career.
An avid golfer — “I play almost every day,” he said — Mathis is looking forward to his Friday performance at Wolf Trap partly because it means he’ll get to play on the beautiful Robert Trent Jones Jr. course at The Golf Club at Lansdowne.
“I’ve played Wolf Trap countless times and it’s one of my favorite venues, partly because it sits so close to that wonderful golf course,” Mathis said. “But Wolf Trap is an icon itself, and it’s always a welcoming crowd.”
A one-time 7-handicap, he’s now playing at around an 18, and he’s still as enamored with the sport as he was when he first learned to play while starting out in the music business in Las Vegas.
He has nine holes-in-one to his credit, a feat almost as amazing as his collection of top hits and 350 million record sales. “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” went on to become one of the most popular albums of all time and spent an unprecedented 490 continuous weeks on the Billboard Chart.
Mathis says golf and singing live are a lot alike, especially when it comes to having to perform your best in front of people.
“I still get nervous when I am on that first tee, and it never goes away,” he said. “It’s the same way on stage. I get nervous until the first couple of songs and I can get myself in a good frame of mind.”
It’s hard to believe that at 76, having done this for more than 55 years, that Mathis would still worry about the live stage, but he explains that the same things are running through his head that were during his first tour in 1957.
“It’s the same every night: ‘How do I look?’ ‘How will I sound?’ It’s paranoia, paranoia, paranoia and it doesn’t go away until you finish a performance and relax,” he said. “Then I always wonder what I was so worried about.”
The singer has achieved just about every accolade imaginable in the music world and has successfully wooed several generations of fans from his early hits to later successes, including 1978’s chart-topping “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” a duet with Deniece Williams. His latest album, “Let it Be Me: Mathis in Nashville,” proved that the balladeer could be just as popular singing country.
At Wolf Trap, Mathis promises to sing all the hits and as many fan favorites as he can.
“Over the years, when I have gone to see performers that I am aware of, the fact they perform music I am familiar with is what I came for. I try not to disappoint anyone in that respect,” he said. “I have a lot of support and that’s an extra thing that puts me in a comfort level. These musicians are really the best and are there 100 percent of the time and that foundation is the thing that buoys my performance.”
He loves seeing audiences of all ages in the crowd, but knows that his style is probably not what kids of this generation listen to. That doesn’t stop him from trying to turn them on to his music.
“A lot of time people who are big fans bring their children and they really are amazed at the concentration that happens in a performance like mine. They are accustomed to a little more relaxed atmosphere and probably more participation in a performance,” he said. “They sit back and listen and hear melodies for the first time and it’s a new adventure for them. Some are very excited about it.”
Mathis is pleased that he’s never had any problems vocally, but understands that he needs to keep working the same lessons he learned when he started taking vocal lessons at 13, to keep his voice strong.
“The voice changes a little as you get older and mature and different qualities come out. I have learned to relax and sing the songs that I think the audience might enjoy as opposed to trying to experiment with things that don’t make sense,” he said. “My first voice teacher was very adamant about physical exercise because that was the thing that would sustain the muscles necessary to support the tone. I try to keep myself feeling good in a good mood, and being physically fit does the trick.”
So, after a day on the links, Mathis will be ready for another top-notch performance at Wolf Trap.
“Even though I’ve done it a million times, the excitement of the next one is what keeps us going,” he said. “It’s all been an amazing journey.”