Inspired by the likes of Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine and Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis became one of the last of the traditional ballad singers to thrive before the rise of rock.
He grew up in San Francisco, studying classical and opera technique and becoming a celebrated high school athlete. In 1956, he chose a music career over the chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic team.
His jazz-oriented debut album for Columbia Records didn’t make an impact, but under the guidance of label executive Mitch Miller, Mathis applied his distinctive voice, with its sharp enunciation and heavy vibrato, to such romantic fare as “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “Chances Are.” The latter, as well as “Misty” and “It’s Not for Me to Say,” were later enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Mathis’ singles sales slowed in the early ‘60s, but he remained a prolific album seller. After moving in a soft-rock direction, he had his second No. 1 hit in 1978, a teaming with Deniece Williams on “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” He received the Recording Academy’s lifetime achievement award in 2003.