Johnny Mathis Still ‘Wonderful, Wonderful’

Legendary recording artist Johnny Mathis is -by his own measure-in the end stages of a career that has spanned six decades.

At 78, Mathis does not talk about retiring. He talks about changing direction. He ponders spending time doing charity work, golfing and embracing his homebody lifestyle.

“I think I’m good for another five or six years,” he said. “It’s getting difficult to travel. People my age need plenty of rest.”

That aside, Mathis will bring his ageless repertoire of soft, romantic ballads to Wheeling in a 7:30 p.m. performance on Thursday at the Capitol Theatre as part of his 58th Anniversary Concert schedule. Included are sing-along hits “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “The Twelfth of Never,” “Wonderful, Wonderful” and his signature classic, “Chances Are.”

The 10-city tour takes him all around the country and to three United Kingdom cities through mid-November.

Mathis remembers visiting Wheeling several years ago at a very different venue.

“I was invited there by a very prominent couple for a private show at a hotel,” he said. “It would be nice to see them again.”

He was referring to a performance he did at Oglebay’s Wilson Lodge at the invitation of Wheeling businessman Gary West as a gift to his wife Flip.

Through the years, Mathis has often thought about life at the end of his singing days.

“It’s very important for me to look and sound a certain way on stage,” he said. “People make a point of telling me about my appearance. The first thing they say is ‘you look great.’ I respond with ‘yeah, but how did I sound?'”

He said performers lose their desire to sing when they feel like they sound bad. He experienced a taste of that feeling a couple weeks ago when he did a voiceover on the ESPN sports network.

“I did a voiceover for a special about my dear friend Ollie Matson, who played professional football for the old Chicago Cardinals during the 1950s,” Mathis said. “He and his teammates sang a rendition of ‘Good Night Irene’ when they had beaten an opponent. I did a little off-the-cuff version of the song at the end of my commentary and the producers made it a part of the program. I sounded terrible because I did not prepare. I couldn’t stand it.”

Another thing Mathis always has wanted to do is go to hospitals and visit with and sing for people who are ill.

“A little light in their lives can make a big difference,” he said.

As Mathis looks to a time when he may lay down the microphone, he sees himself picking up the golf clubs more often.

“Other than music, golf is my passion,” he said. “Every day of my life, I either watch a golf video, take a few practice swings or go out and play a round. I have had 13 holes-in-one-three in one year-and my mediocre handicap is 12.”

He said he tried to get in a round of golf during his heavy touring days, but a new schedule of one-night stands takes away playing on the road.

“When I’m home, I abuse the pleasure,” he said.

Mathis credits his love of cooking for his stay-at-home habits.

“I never eat out,” he said. “I do not enjoy the process, and I have had some awful food in restaurants. Preparing my own food is something I love to do. It is mostly fruits and vegetables, but I do cook a lot of fish.”

He complements a healthy diet with plenty of exercise.

“It’s foolish to eat well and then throw it all away. I exercise five days a week for at least one and one-half hours at a time,” he said.

He said the thing he is most proud of is realizing the miracle of still learning and still being excited about the next performance.

“I always wanted to exert myself physically in a way that it would help my performance and appearance,” Mathis said.

He said singing came relatively easily to him, but physical training was a bit more challenging.

It started when he was a promising high school athlete.

Mathis became a track and field high jumper and hurdler at San Francisco State College and, at 19 years of age, received an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1957 at the University of California.

“I got a call from George Avakian, a Columbia records executive who wanted me to go to New York for my first recording session during the same week I was suppose to go to the Olympic tryouts,” he said. “I had to decide between track and field and music.”

Nobody, including Mathis, knew at that time that “Chances Are” he would still be singing 58 years later at the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling.