The great vocalist remembers recording his first two Christmas albums.
Johnny Mathis recorded Christmas music during its heyday, before the British Invasion changed the musical landscape, notions of cool, and our expectations from singers. Mathis recorded five Christmas albums between 1958 and and 2002. Recently, Sony/Legacy released Mathis’ The Complete Global Albums Collection, a box set with 12 Mathis albums, two discs of non-album singles and other tracks, and among them is 1963’s Sounds of Christmas.
In conversation, Mathis was very charming, and his speaking voice showed no sign of wear. There were moments when he seemed bemused by my questions, and we sorted out his confusion once were done. All of my questions about “It’s a Marshmallow World” surprised him because in his mind, that wasn’t one of the more enduring songs from his Christmas recordings. His experience made him think of his version of “Sleigh Ride” from his first Christmas album, Merry Christmas, as his big seasonal song. I have “It’s a Marshmallow World” from Sounds of Christmas on a number of compilations of holiday music. Perhaps the song has been collected because his is one of the few great versions of “It’s a Marshmallow World,” while there are many great versions of “Sleigh Ride,” but whatever the case, once we were done he confessed his surprised that I had zeroed in on what he considered to be a minor song. That didn’t affect the gentlemanly way he took me inside the process of making Christmas music.
I was surprised when I prepared for this interview to discover that “It’s a Marshmallow World” was never released as a single.
A lot of the music that is supposedly not important for the record company to consider as a single gets found, and that’s what happened to me on one of my favorite, favorite recordings. “Misty” was not a single, and yet it has become a big part of my life. What we do is, we have a series of songs that we’re going to do, then we go in and record them. Then we give them to the record company and they utilize them in any way they see fit. A lot of the songs that I thought were going to be singles never quite made it but ended up released in some form, usually an album form.
When you recorded “Marshmallow World,” did you have any sense that it would become an enduring song? What were your thoughts on the song at the time?
Gosh, I don’t know. I think I heard Burl Ives—the great, great, iconic actor, singer and bon vivant—sing it, and I was taken by it. All the things I ever heard him sing were done with such passion that I was taken by it, and he did it so well. That was my motivation to record the song—because I liked it a lot—and we got a good record out of it. But I didn’t feel any different about that then I felt, for instance, about “Misty”—that somehow, someone was going to hear it one day, in what manner I didn’t know.
When you heard any Christmas song, what did you listen for? What did you hear that made you think it was a good song for you to record?
There’s a very simple explanation for my recording Christmas music: I did it for my mom and my dad, who made Christmas for my six brothers and sisters. I felt so special. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have any money, so Christmas time was very important because a lot of stuff was free. All the wonderful feelings you get from people who have never spoken to you before, things of that nature. The music that you hear in the streets and in the stores. That was music that was so ingrained in me that I couldn’t wait to have an opportunity to record whatever I wanted to. The minute I had that opportunity, I recorded Christmas music.
You recorded your first Christmas album, Merry Christmas, with Percy Faith? What can you tell me about working with him? What made him special?
Percy was a recording artist in-house at Columbia Records when I met him. He was a recording artist on his own, but the record company asked him if he would record with me. I had no track record. I was a kid. I was 19 years old. That was a tough decision for an artist of his stature to take on someone as unknown as I was, but he did it with his professionalism and complete artistry and craft. Most people probably don’t realize how important those orchestrations were on that album. But it was everything. He utilized a choir, put little jingles behind popular Christmas songs. He was magical. That was the best thing that ever happened to me as far as Christmas music was concerned.
Did singing with Percy affect your ideas about what you should be doing the rest of the year?
It affected every aspect of my personality. I was a kid. I knew nothing. I asked Percy at times during our recording session, Was that okay? Should I sing it this way? Should I sing it that way? Percy was a stern taskmaster and turned to and said on almost every occasion, John, sing it the right way. I slunk away and went back to my cubby hole and tried not to get in the way. All this beautiful was all around me and flying by. All I had to do was open my mouth and make sure everybody heard the words.
What time of year did you record the first album?
That’s the strange aspect of recording Christmas music. It’s all done during the hot days of summertime because the company has to have plenty of time to process your work and package it. Christmas music is never recorded at Christmas time.
Was it hard to get in the mood of the songs?
It does take a little effort, but like with a love song, who are you fantasizing with? There were a lot of crazy, crazy machinations that went on in the studio, of course. People would come in with fake snow and throw it all over the place, and before you know it you’re right there.
You did your second Christmas album, Sounds of Christmas, with Don Costa, who you’d worked with before. How was that experience different from working with Percy Faith?
Don Costa, in my estimation, was one of the great arrangers of all time. He had such quality about his work, and he was a very nice man. He did most of his arranging in the studio during the performances. He would write the things and give them to the guy next to him, and he would write out the parts and give them to the people. That was the first time I’d ever seen that. I miss him a great deal. I was introduced to him by some music he had done for Johnny Nash, who was one of my favorite singers years and years ago. Johnny was even younger than I was when he started. I think he was 18 when he started working with Don Costa. I still have his recordings that he did with Don. I love them.
It sounds like when you recorded with Percy Faith, that he had his ideas and you were singing to his arrangements—
Was Don Costa doing arrangements with you specifically in mind?
It’s give and take, always, with musicians. We rehearse a lot, then we go away from one another and when we come back, we’re pleased to find that he had augmented his part and all I have to do is stay out of the way. I have blossomed my interpretation of the song. All he needs to do is support me. All those wonderful things happen because you’re working in tandem. It seems like it would be difficult, but it’s a wonderful, wonderful experience. It’s a collaboration in big, capital letters.
As a performer, when you hear what someone else has done for you as I hear for the first time when these arrangers play their music for the first time for me, it’s so uplifting and it’s such a wonderful feeling that you rise to the occasion. If you don’t feel that feeling, then you know your work is cut out for you. [laughs]
Did you approach a Christmas song any differently than you’d approach a song the rest of the year?
A lot of the Christmas music that I’ve recorded has been religious in nature, and when you sing music that is not religious—popular music—it’s wonderful to be able to sing it as a kid. All the childlike feelings come forward when you start to sing Christmas music because most of it you’ve heard during your lifetime. Or the words are meaningful to you. The emotional performance of Christmas songs is laid out in front you, and all you have to do is get in the mood.
When singing hymns and spirituals, did you have to think about how to hit the right balance between respect for the intent of the material and the fact that you were putting it on a Christmas record?
There’s a certain reverence that you have for all music, and you try to get into that moment so that you can be a part of it, not copy someone’s ideas about their feelings. But you want to be absolutely sincere, and you want to be as simple and straightforward as you can, especially with religious music. And you want to do it with your own capabilities in mind. I sang a song that I first heard Mahalia Jackson sing, "Come Sunday." I did it completely differently, but I sang it with the same emotion that I felt for her version. I wanted a spiritual overtone, but I didn’t want to hit anybody over the head with it. I wanted to leave a space for them to share in it. That’s all we do. We listen to music all our lives, and then we want to rejoice in it and reproduce it. Since we’re doing it and not them, it comes out differently.
Without exaggerating too much, 80 percent of it depends on the support you get from the orchestrator. The minute you hear their arrangements, you start thinking about Christmas. They have bells in them, other instruments. Some of these arrangers have the capacity to just nail it. They can’t go about it using the same orchestrations they would use for a romantic ballad. They have to get the element of Christmas involved in the arrangement, and some of them are absolutely brilliant with it. I’ve been privileged to sing with some of the best. And that’s the reason for so much of the success of my Christmas music over the years.