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Entertainment legend Johnny Mathis returns to Vegas

It’s a story that has become ripe a dozen years later. A Friday afternoon in Primm, at Buffalo Bill’s Star of the Desert Arena. A full orchestra was onstage for soundcheck, marking time and tuning up for that night’s headliner.

The hall was silent for some murmurs and light laughing. A few notes, a cough here and there. Some of these musicians dated to the days of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in Vegas. Some also had backed such superstars as Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé.

This was not their first gig, not by a long measure. This band was not easily impressed or emotionally moved.

Then Johnny Mathis walked out. The veteran musicians clapped, even while trying to be cool. Sniffles could be heard, tears spilled from faces. The great vocalist had elicited crying without even singing a note.

A few days ago, Mathis listened back to that story. He chuckled at the retelling.

“Music does amazing things to people, absolutely,” said Mathis, back in Las Vegas at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Hall at the Smith Center. “Over the years, I’ve found that to be very true. It really touches our hearts.”

Especially when you are Johnny Mathis.

Mathis’ path to superstardom is a tale for all time. He was a star track athlete in high school and college in San Francisco. Coaches considered Mathis a potential Olympic gold-medal prospect as a hurdler and high-jumper (NBA great Bill Russell, also from San Francisco, was one of the few athletes in Mathis’ class as a high jumper).

Mathis was presented the option of attending the 1956 Olympic trials, or pursue a career as a singer by cutting an album in New York. He chose the later, naturally, signing with Columbia Records. That voice we know so well was gold standard, too.

“I grew up in a large family, we didn’t really have any money, so I participated in a lot of sports,” Mathis said. “I had a lot of time on my hands. I also began singing, as a teenager, and I really loved doing it.”

Mathis was taken to new heights by the music he heard.

“There were some singers I admired so much, like Lena Horne,” Mathis said. “Not only was she beautiful, but her musical ability was incredible. She sang songs that nobody ever heard, they seemed to be esoteric, but they were wonderful.”

Mathis does not bow to the obvious for his early musical influences.

“There was another lady, Mabel Mercer, who had no voice but was one of the best singers in the world,” Mathis said. “How do I explain that (laughs)? She talked her songs as well as anybody who ever sang them. I was very, very lucky as a youngster to live in New York and to listen to Mabel and watch her performances. I learned a lot from how to get across messages by singing.”

For statistical evidence of Mathis’ impact on contemporary music, he has released 34 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts, and a staggering 74 albums on the Billboard 200 listings. The 1956 “Wonderful, Wonderful” was his first hit, leading to a string of classics, among them “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “Chances Are,” “Misty,” “The Twelfth of Never” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” duet with Deniece Williams.

Another career spike is “Johnny’s Greatest Hits” from 1958 (just two years into Mathis’ recording career), which spent nearly 10 years on the Billboard 200 chart, a record that held until being surpassed by Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in 1983.A Christmas favorite, “Merry Christmas,” also released in ‘58, reached multi-platinum status 22 years ago and remains a holiday favorite.

This year is Mathis’ 65th anniversary as a recording artist. He has had a Top 40 hit in every decade dating to the 1950s. His Billboard album sales rank No. 6, all-time.

Mathis has a long history in Las Vegas, reaching to the early days of the Sands in 1955. The hotel’s entertainment director, Jack Entratter, was friends with Horne. The star headliner brought in Mathis, beginning a run in Vegas that led to appearances at the Sahara, Riviera, Flamingo, Dunes, Caesars Palace and Las Vegas Hilton. “Johnny Mathis in Person: Recorded Live at Las Vegas” was recorded at Caesars’ Circus Maximus in 1971.

“What impressed me from the start in Las Vegas is the attention people paid to my singing, my performances, because they so had so many other distractions,” Mathis said. “As a singer, at an early age, most of my singing was done in concerts. I had to get accustomed to singing in these casinos, holding the audience, because they were thinking about things other than my singing. Fortunately, things worked out.”

Mathis is 86, astonishing on so many levels, especially at how strong even his speaking voice has remained. He’s asked frequently, and again, how he does it.

“Someone told me about a thousand years ago, the best thing that you can do as a singer is keep yourself in physical shape,” Mathis said. “I loved golf, I played golf with a lot of people who were physical educators. This was about 30, 40 years ago. I got involved in going to the gym, then going and hitting the golf ball.

“I still do that, I get up at 4, go to the gym at 5 and do my exercises. That is how I start my day.”

Mathis has showed a playful sense of humor in the December 2020 release, “I’ve Completely Lost My Sense of Time,” under a collective called the Randy Waldman Superheroes. Martin Short, Bill Burr, Ray Romano, Robert Davi and Norman Lear also sing on the perky pandemic parody tune.

But Mathis himself is mystified at how he’s been able to maintain his youth.

“I keep saying, ‘I wonder how old I am,’” he said, laughing. “People ask how old I am, and I don’t know! I say, ‘I’m 80-something! I don’t think I’m 90 yet!’ But I was born in 1935, that I can tell you. It’s documented.”

Mathis said he’s simply ready to get back in front of his big family of musicians.

“I love singing the recordings that I’ve made over the years, and reproducing them in person,” the legendary entertainer said. “That’s a really big kick for the audience, I think. It’s a big kick for me, too, and everyone onstage.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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