Artist: Johnny Mathis
Album: The Voice Of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection
Label: Legacy Recordings
Release Date: 12.8.2017
Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sammy Cahn, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Dorsey, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jules Stein, Cy Coleman, Jimmy Webb, Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, Paul Simon, Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon: all of them wrote many timeless songs, any one of which would have secured his name in music history. Not coincidentally, many of these writers’ most successful recordings were performed by Johnny Mathis, one of the great vocalists of the 20th Century.
Hugely popular for six decades, the crooner’s Columbia years started in the mid-’50s. As soon as 1958 Mathis had enough success to release Johnny’s Greatest Hits, which became one of the most popular albums of all time, spending more than nine years on Billboard’s Top Albums Chart—490 continuous weeks.
One of the first artists to put out a “concept” album, over his career Mathis’ albums maintained sonic coherency from start to finish. You Light Up My Life, Swing Softly, The Ballads of Broadway and The Rhythms of Broadway, Love Is Blue, Those Were the Days, etc., tie the albums’ themes together just as effectively as the obvious Merry Christmas or Blue Christmas do. Happily, Sony’s Legacy Recordings has not messed with success, preserving each album individually plus adding 40 unreleased tracks to the huge volume of this man’s career.
With The Voice of Romance, a massive, 68-disc numbered collection, Legacy Recordings may have reinvented the box set, because I’ve never seen another quite like it. Nearly seven pounds of music and information, the set is beautifully arranged and highly accessible. Packaged in a sturdy shoebox-type container, it’s easy to access the discs and, because they’re not only numbered but color-coded, it’s easy to keep them filed in order. Each CD has a faithful reproduction of the front and back covers and the CD evokes vinyl, noting original release dates. A well-organized booklet contains quality reproductions of each album cover, very readable track listings and credits for each CD, plus interesting portraits and photos of recording sessions, all clearly marked, one year at a time. A history of his career and the evolution of the music add context and fascinating details, even for a devoted fan. Icing on the cake is the signed, numbered-edition certificate.
And what a delicious cake it is! Johnny Mathis has had so many hits, shiver after shiver hits you as you leaf through the albums and think Oh, gee, I forgot about that one! And that one! Ageless songs like “As Time Goes By,” “When I Fall In Love,” “The Twelfth of Never,” “Since I Fell For You,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Unbreak My Heart,” “Walk On By” “Love Me Tender,” five unforgettable albums of Christmas songs, and even an album titled Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole. The track listing for the nearly 800 songs (which includes a number of previously unreleased tracks) runs to 155 pages; the set may sound a little pricey, but it’s about 50¢ a song. One favorite disc happens to be the last, The Great American Songbook, which includes Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and Bryan Adams’ “Run To You,” but 68 people might make an argument for 68 different favorites. My only quibble: I’d have named the box set I’ll Take Romance.
Widely regarded as one of the nicest guys in show business and an unabashedly proud son, Mathis dedicated these recordings to his parents, his teachers, friends and “listeners like you” on the gold, signed certificate.
Johnny Mathis’ recordings are so timeless, and we hear them so often (particularly at Christmas) it’s a bit of a shock to find that this release falls at a 60th-Anniversary point. On one hand, Johnny Mathis has been part of our lives for so long we can’t remember a time without his velvet voice, but on the other, well, 60 years—nothing lasts forever. In this case, and with this set, Johnny Mathis will live forever, and truly, that’s Wonderful! Wonderful!