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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Johnny Mathis, “The Complete Global Albums Collection”

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Mathis - Global Box Set

In two short years, Johnny Mathis will likely celebrate his 60th anniversary with Columbia Records, a towering achievement by any standard. But even the strongest marriages must sometimes weather separations, as was the case when the vocalist jumped ship to rival Mercury Records for the period between 1963 and 1967. At Mercury, Mathis formed Global Productions to administer his master recordings, and recorded some eleven albums (only ten of which were originally released) under its aegis. Upon his return to Columbia, a select few of Mathis’ Mercury recordings were reintroduced to the catalogue; the others remained dormant. A 2-CD set, The Global Masters, arrived in 1997 as an overview of this period, and in 2012, Real Gone Music finally reissued the ten original albums, and the eleventh shelved album, in full. Now, Legacy Recordings has released The Complete Global Albums Collection with all eleven LPs plus two more discs of bonus material, more than half of which has never previously seen the light of day. Within the compact, nondescript package, the box set contains some of the most beguiling music ever recorded by the velvet-voiced singer. And as the 1963-1967 period birthed some of the most seismic shifts in popular music, the box also traces the evolution of the Mathis style as he transitioned from Broadway and Hollywood standards to contemporary pop without sacrificing his rich, warm vibrato or the manner in which he caressed a lyric.

At Mercury, Mathis didn’t veer too far from the richly romantic ballad style that made him famous. He made the decision to self-produce a number of his albums, modestly reflecting in his specially-penned liner notes that “I tried to do what I could, but I had no idea what would be good for the market.” Crucially, though, he enlisted a number of the arrangers with whom he had worked at Columbia, including Don Costa and Glenn Osser.

Costa helmed Mathis’ Mercury debut, 1963’s The Sounds of Christmas, which is only now premiering on CD as part of this set in its original format. Columbia’s past LP and CD reissues retitled the album Christmas with Johnny Mathis and dropped two songs (“The Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Reindeer, Will Travel”). Both are happily reinstated here. The collaboration between singer Mathis, arranger Osser and producer Costa resulted in one of Mathis’ strongest and most diverse holiday sets – with spiritual songs, Tin Pan Alley favorites and novelties all represented.

Most of Mathis’ earliest Mercury albums concentrated on Broadway and Hollywood repertoire, exquisitely sung and lushly arranged, from songwriters of the past and present: Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (“Call Me Irresponsible”) Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (“A Ship Without a Sail”), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (“Camelot”), Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (“Put on a Happy Face”). Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin (“Long Ago and Far Away”) and Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (“Never Let Me Go”) among them. The smart and sophisticated songs of Bart Howard also made a striking impression on these albums. Mathis championed his friend by recording such compositions as “Forget Me Not,” “Sky Full of Rainbows,” “What Do You Feel in Your Heart,” “Fantastic,” “Tomorrow Song,” “A Thousand Blue Bubbles.”

The most radical long-player of The Global Albums is 1964’s adventurous Olé, arranged by Allyn Ferguson. On this true departure of a record, Mathis performed a number of Latin American songs in their original language. These weren’t just much-covered songs from the bossa nova boom (although he did record Luis Bonfá’s “Manha de Carneval”) but also light classical pieces from the likes of Heitor Villa-Lobos and even Desi Arnaz’ signature “Babalu.”

Keep reading after the jump!

By 1965, Mathis was beginning to open himself to contemporary pop material. A fine rendition of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Go Away Little Girl,” previously a hit for Steve Lawrence, sat comfortably on that year’s Love is Everything. Though Mathis’ next album The Sweetheart Tree eschewed pop fare, two Beatles tunes (“Michelle” and “Yesterday”) appeared on The Shadow of Your Smile (1966) alongside, notably, three songs from Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s sublime score to On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. (The Sweetheart Tree was issued in the U.K. with a rejiggered track line-up including some additional songs, all of which are included here.) By the time of So Nice, also from 1966, Mathis had settled into a comfortable groove with his blend of pop (Bacharach and David, Marcos Valle, Bob Lind) and Broadway (a fourth song from Clear Day, two from Man of La Mancha). This mixture would continue to his final Mercury album, Johnny Mathis Sings, with its choice recordings of Bacharach and David’s breezy “Saturday Sunshine”, Henry Mancini, Livingston and Evans’ “Lovers in New York” and Cahn and Van Heusen’s standard “The Second Time Around.” Soon, it would be the second time around for Mathis as he re-signed to Columbia Records not long after the LP’s release.

The Complete Global Albums Collection has only the second appearance anywhere of Broadway, Mathis’s shelved album with Allyn Ferguson from 1964. It’s a diverse lot of showtunes, with excitement provided by the likes of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s “She Loves Me” from the musical of the same name, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s Funny Girl showstopper “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s delightful “You’d Better Love Me” from High Spirits. Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green are also represented with a pair of tracks: “Independent (On My Own)” from Bells are Ringing, and the joyful “Comes Once in a Lifetime” from Subways Are for Sleeping.

Naturally, the two discs of never-on-CD singles and previously unissued tracks may be the most remarkable part of the collection. These 28 songs are of a piece with the album material.   Don Costa’s arrangement lends a Caribbean lilt to 1964’s No. 53 single “Bye Bye Barbara,” perhaps the sweetest-ever farewell to a wicked woman, and a lightly Latin beat decorates his chart for “It’s a Great Night for Crying,” its flipside. Costa also arranged the tinkling piano of the previously unissued “Funny Little Girl” which recalls “Chances Are,” while the melody of the 1964 single “The Taste of Tears” (also helmed by Costa) is redolent of “The Twelfth of Never.”

Most tantalizingly, Mathis teamed with Mercury producer Quincy Jones for eight tracks. Two were released on 45 and six were relegated to the shelf, but all are included here. Four of Q’s eight productions were arranged by the great Claus Ogerman (his partner on many of Lesley Gore’s greatest records) including the gently rhythmic single “Listen, Lonely Girl” and the dreamy “While Stephanie Sleeps.” Torrie Zito, a veteran arranger for artists such as Tony Bennett, teamed up with Jones for another four previously unreleased sides including Paul Vance and Leon Carr’s sentimental “Two Tickets and a Candy Heart,” and Vance and Lee Pockriss’ charming, light “Keep It Simple.” Glenn Osser arranged Mathis’ version of the Quincy Jones/Bobby Russell ballad “The Slender Thread” from the Paramount picture of the same name.

This treasure trove of previously unreleased music has yielded numerous hidden gems. Glenn Osser’s bright, swinging 1965 arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” confidently sung by Johnny with the warmth and clarity of a natural folksinger, is a fascinating find. “Portrait of My Love,” a hit for Steve Lawrence in the U.S. and Matt Monro in the U.K., was another natural fit for Mathis’ smooth voice. As always, the music of Broadway and Hollywood inspired some of Mathis’ finest performances. It’s hard to imagine why his slow, ethereal “Lover” from the Rodgers and Hart songbook, or a sensual “Shall We Dance” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, failed to see release. Best of all is a rare male pop version of the deliciously defiant “Some People” from Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s immortal Gypsy. (Mathis had previously scored a hit at Columbia with the ballad “Small World” from the same score.)

Each disc is presented in a mini-LP replica sleeve recreating the original album artwork. (Many of the albums featured a distinctive painted look.) An excellent 36-page booklet has a four-page note by Mathis with album-by-album memories, plus full credits and discographical annotation for each title. As produced by Didier C. Deutsch and mastered by Mark Wilder and Tim Sturges, this is truly a near-flawless collection. Why “near,” then? It appears that a select handful of Global tracks are absent from this set – notably “Dianacita” (the B-side to “Take the Time” from 1965, which is included) and both sides of the 1963 single “Your Teenage Dreams” b/w “Come Back.” As the team behind this set endeavored to include so much rare music, even including an honest disclaimer as to the deficiency of some of the source material on the rarest tracks, it’s surprising that even these relatively small omissions would be made and unacknowledged within the copious text.

Without a doubt, however, The Complete Global Albums Collection is, well, wonderful, wonderful. It’s a set that comes once in a lifetime, and one that any Johnny Mathis fan – and that’s to say, any fan of classic singing and of American popular song – will want to add to the shelf.

You can order The Complete Global Albums Collection at Amazon U.S. or Amazon U.K. !

Written by Joe Marchese

November 17, 2014 at 09:45

One Response

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  1. you are right on the money. critic have claimed this era was johns most creative. however they should have checked out all the albums he did upon his return to columbia . they are brilliant works of art by a genius . thats a term that has only been used for the likes of very few . as columbia has stated upon one if johns releases the master is back. his phrasing is only compared to that of sinatra and his story telling is all by itself . i want to see the entire catalog released. when ray charles wanted to sing his last song there was only one man he wanted and that man is johnny mathis. dr.k

    dr. paul kaufman

    November 18, 2014 at 01:19

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