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Back Tracks: The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis

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Today’s second installment in a special series of holiday-themed Back Tracks explores the holiday catalogue of legendary Columbia recording artist Johnny Mathis.

Earlier this year, Columbia Records released Let It Be Me, a new set by the 75-years-young singer with the smooth voice and big vibrato. This is no small feat considering that Mathis made his Columbia debut in 1956, and other than a brief tenure at Mercury, has remained at the label for the 54 years since. With six decades of LPs in his catalogue, over sixty of which have charted successfully, it wouldn’t be difficult for any number of albums to get lost in the shuffle. (While both Legacy and Collector’s Choice have given us major Mathis reissue campaigns, a number of his albums still remain unavailable on CD.) One of the most requested of all Mathis’ albums, 1981’s unreleased Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards-produced I Love My Lady, finally came to light this year when three exceptional tracks were finally released on Rhino France’s 4-disc CHIC box set. (If only the full album would follow…!)

Mathis’ Christmas recordings, however, have never been far away, and remain popular. His first, Merry Christmas, was a 1958 Percy Faith production that remains in print today; his last to date, 2002’s The Christmas Album, found his voice in remarkably unchanged condition and his enthusiasm for the holiday season undiminished. Since then, Mathis has continued celebrating the season via collaborations with artists like Bette Midler and Mannheim Steamroller, and of course, with new compilations. Hit the jump to join Johnny, Mitch Miller and Percy Faith at the very beginning!

Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1958 – reissued Legacy, 2003)

After briefly trying a jazz-oriented style with his self-titled 1956 debut, Johnny Mathis and Columbia producer Mitch Miller quickly discovered Mathis’ magic as a romantic balladeer. It was with this strength in mind that Percy Faith (a major recording artist in his own right) crafted the arrangements for 1958’s Merry Christmas. The album eschews big, brassy productions in favor of a series of gentle, string-enhanced renditions of familiar favorites. Mathis’ intimate reading of “The Christmas Song” virtually oozes romance, heightening the song’s wintery imagery, while the artist is equally at home with the reverence of “Silent Night” and “What Child is This?” This inital foray into Christmas music may be Mathis’ most consistent, and in 2003, Legacy reissued it with two bonus tracks, “Christmas Eve” and “My Kind of Christmas,” both recorded in 1961 for Columbia single 42238.  Merry Christmas is still the seminal Johnny Mathis Christmas album.

The Sounds of Christmas (Mercury, 1963)

In 1963, with ownership of his masters in mind, Johnny Mathis embarked on what would turn out to be a four-year stint with Mercury Records producing ten studio albums. The first of these was, naturally, a Christmas-themed LP. The Sounds of Christmas teamed Mathis with producer/arranger Don Costa for another mix of secular, traditional and even classical holiday sounds. Despite later being known for his more pop-oriented orchestrations for Frank Sinatra, Costa was actually accomplished in all areas of arrangement and production (see Sinatra & Strings for perhaps the apex of his art) and surrounded Mathis in a lush production to rival Faith’s work. Few albums could successfully contain both “The Hallejulah Chorus” and a novelty like “Have Reindeer, Will Travel,” but Mathis’ smooth, comforting style makes it all palatable. To date, like Mathis’ other Mercury recordings, The Sounds of Christmas has never seen a complete CD reissue, but ten of its twelve tracks appeared on the 1971 Columbia release Christmas with Johnny Mathis as the artist licensed these tracks back to his new/old home.

Give Me Your Love for Christmas (Columbia, 1969)

By 1969, Mathis had returned to Columbia and set his sights on what would turn out to be another million-selling holiday collection. Give Me Your Love for Christmas, arranged and conducted by Ernie Freeman, made just a few concessions to the sound of pop circa the turn of the decade. One of its most recent tracks was the gorgeous “Christmas Day,” from the then-current Broadway musical Promises, Promises penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Mathis also took a big-band turn at “Jingle Bell Rock” and sounds as if he’s enjoying himself on the fan favorite “Calypso Noel.” The title song, co-written by the album’s producer Jack Gold, became another Mathis standard in his traditionally sumptuous mold. Other highlights include a lightly-swinging version of “My Favorite Things” and a deliciously smoky “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Reverent performances of “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and a stunningly-sung “The Lord’s Prayer” round out the album.

Christmas with Johnny Mathis (Columbia/Harmony, 1971 – reissued Columbia, 1990)

Columbia’s budget Harmony imprint issued this 10-track abridgement of Mercury’s The Sounds of Christmas in 1971. It dropped “Have Reindeer, Will Travel” and “The Little Drummer Boy” from the lineup and offered new cover art of a contemporary Mathis. This was unfortunately the edition of the album released on CD in 1990.

Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (Columbia, 1986)

In this case, Christmas Eve came some fifteen years after Christmas itself, but it was worth the wait!  Working with a variety of producers including Jeremy Lubbock, Ray Ellis and Henry Mancini, Mathis hewed closely to his template, retaining the grand orchestra and singers but eschewing non-secular songs this time out. The album’s leadoff track, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” experienced a resurgence in popularity some six years later when it appeared on the soundtrack to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992); it remains in rotation on holiday radio today.  Mathis also revitalizes his Columbia label mate Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in an effervescent recording, and combines “Happy Holiday” with “Caroling, Caroling” for a new twist. Mathis brings the same palpable cheer to a bright “We Need a Little Christmas,” but the lesser-known songs are just as enjoyable.  Two more medleys form the heart of the album. First Mathis is joined by a children’s choir for “Christmas is for Everyone” with “Where Can I Find Christmas?,” the theme to the all-too-unknown animated television special The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas. Then Mancini and his frequent collaborator Leslie Bricusse offer “Every Christmas Eve” and “Giving (Santa’s Theme)” from the score to Santa Claus: The Movie. These special tracks help Christmas Eve stand out, even today.

For Christmas (Columbia, 1986)

For Christmas is a 12-track compilation derived from The Sounds of Christmas and Give Me Your Love for Christmas. Despite the sonic differences between those two albums (one produced for Mercury in 1963, the other for Columbia in 1969), the tracks blend reasonably well together, but with Give Me Your Love still in print and 10 of Sounds’ 12 tracks available as Christmas with Johnny Mathis, For Christmas is rather unnecessary.

Home for Christmas (CMV/CBS Records, 1990 – reissued Sony BMG Special Products, 2007)

Although time hasn’t been kind to its production values (typical of the era), Home for Christmas will please Mathis fans looking for an old-fashioned Christmas special with a lot of great music. The special offers Mathis singing (or lip-synching!) fourteen tracks; four are from his then-most recent album Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis such as Henry Mancini’s “Every Christmas Eve/Giving” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” while others date all the way back to Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection (Columbia/Legacy, 1993)

This 14-track compilation was the most comprehensive look at Mathis’ Christmas music at the time of its release. It contained five songs from Merry Christmas, two from The Sounds of Christmas, three from Give Me Your Love for Christmas and four from Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis. Mark Wilder did a fine mastering job, and this remained your one-stop shopping for a Mathis Christmas anthology until a new title superseded it over a decade later in 2006.

The Christmas Album (Columbia, 2002)

2002’s The Christmas Album is Mathis’ last full studio Christmas album to date. Robbie Buchanan sits in the arranger/producer’s chair this time, with arrangement tasks shared by the returning Ray Ellis and others including Alan Broadbent and Jonathan Tunick, the Oscar, Tony and Grammy-winning orchestrator. Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford offered a new track written especially for Mathis, “Heavenly Peace,” but for the most part, he sticks to the tried-and-true. Among the more unique selections are “A Christmas Love Song” by the illustrious team of Johnny Mandel with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and a fine medley of “Snowfall” and A Charlie Brown Christmas’ “Christmas Time is Here.” While the ten tracks add up to a far too short running time (a common occurrence on many of Mathis’ more recent releases), it’s an enjoyable listen from start to finish. The Christmas Album was also released in a multichannel SACD edition, and for those with SACD capability, it’s highly recommended.

Gold: A 50th Anniversary Christmas Collection (Columbia/Legacy, 2006)

In 2006, Johnny Mathis celebrated 50 years as a recording artist, his first Columbia LP having appeared in 1956.  Two CD compilations and one DVD were released to mark this momentous occasion, all titled Gold. One of the CDs, of course, was dedicated solely to Mathis’ holiday recordings. Gold offers just 15 tracks, only one more than A Personal Christmas Collection, but offered a number of different tracks from that set. Merry Christmas is this time represented by five tracks (one full third of the CD!), three of which are duplicated on the previous release. The Sounds of Christmas gets the short shrift, just one track also on Personal Christmas Collection, and Give Me Your Love for Christmas is unfortunately overlooked altogether. Five more tracks derive from Christmas Eve, three of which are repeats from Personal; two tracks from 2002’s The Christmas Album bring us up to date. Two nice bonuses do appear, “O Tannenbaum” from Mannheim Steamroller’s 2004 Christmas Celebration, and “Winter Wonderland/Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” a duet with Bette Midler from her 2006 album Cool Yule. Mark Wilder again does a solid job mastering.

Believe it or not, that doesn’t complete Mathis’ incredible Christmas oeuvre. There are still a number of holiday-related tracks performed by the artist which aren’t as widely available or are out-of-print. Mathis’ 1980 duets with Gladys Knight and The Pips (Columbia 11409) on “When a Child is Born” and its B-side, “The Lord’s Prayer,” can both be found on Knight’s seasonal release That Special Time of Year, available on CD from Columbia/Sony Music Special Products. “Christmas Is” (Columbia 45281, 1971) and “Ave Maria” can be found on another Special Products budget-priced release, also titled Christmas Is. (Both settings of “Ave Maria” were recorded by Mathis for his 1958 Good Night, Dear Lord.) The B-side of “Christmas Is,” “Sign of the Dove,” remains unavailable on CD. Two tracks are still in limbo from Mercury’s The Sounds of Christmas, “Have Reindeer, Will Travel” and the original “The Little Drummer Boy.” Also notable is a 1979 single, Columbia 1-11158, with two more notable tracks not yet released on CD, “Christmas in the City of Angels” b/w “the Very First Christmas Day.”

Written by Joe Marchese

December 9, 2010 at 12:54

3 Responses

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  1. Johnny also has a Christmas album he did for the Hallmark chain of stores back in the 90s; it also features CeCe Winans.


    December 9, 2010 at 14:26

    • Thanks, Marty! If we were ever to see a Christmas-themed artist box set, Johnny would be the ideal candidate. I’m staggered by his holiday output! Thanks for reading.

      Joe Marchese

      December 14, 2010 at 14:39

  2. […] mystery regarding WHAM! and “Last Christmas.” 12/09: Joe returns with a Back Tracks on Johnny Mathis‘ Christmas discography. 12/11: A loving tribute from Mike on the music of one of his favorite […]

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