Centrepiece Online | Spring 2010
Memories, Music, and Johnny Mathis
by Frances Lambert Johnson ’59
If asked where we were when Kennedy was assassinated, or the Challenger exploded, or the World Trade Center was destroyed, we can visualize exactly where we were and how we felt at that exact moment in time.
Hearing music, especially a particular song, has the same effect on our emotions, because, as Tennessee Williams wrote, “In memory everything seems to happen to music.” It matters not what decade, year, or hour we were affected by a tune, the feelings we felt when we listened to it, whether long ago or every day, come flooding back to us, just as the melody did the first time it touched our hearts.
This mood phenomenon really hit home recently when I attended a Johnny Mathis concert. Mathis doesn’t tour much anymore. He doesn’t need to, much to the dismay of his avid fans. Fortunately his extraordinary talent can still be enjoyed via the periodic release of his CDs. That compelling voice with its rich, dulcet tones has perpetuated countless romantic memories for lovers from the 1950s on till today, and will most likely do so far into the future. His remarkable sound has not really changed over the years. It has only become deeper, warmer, and more moving than ever.
Reacting to Johnny’s superior vocal instrument and unique technique is actually indescribable, because it takes place inside the heart and mind. For me the flood of memories takes me back to my college days at Centre in the late fifties. It was a different world then. It was a time full of family, friends, and fun. Looking back, it was most assuredly a decade of innocence. The Eisenhower years had given America a sense of security and a hope for peace following the aftermath of World War II. As college students, our worries were minor, concentrated mostly on a date for the frat party or passing a test. There were no real concerns like those that today’s college student face. Unbeknownst to him, Johnny Mathis became a guide for every young girl’s romantic fantasies and my personal confidante. His honey-smooth voice was reassuring. His music let us know that everything was beautiful and right with the world.
My fondest memories of Johnny Mathis are from the fall of 1957. After science labs and theater rehearsals, my roommate and I would meet aboard the little shuttle bus that carried us to our dorm on the women’s campus. We would jabber about our class day, upcoming events, and how our “hard” day at school was cause enough for a quick nap before our family-style dinner in the dining hall. Arriving at the women’s campus, we would race to our room, laughing as we made it up the stairs with our armload of books.
It was there that we would go into our basic late afternoon routine. We stripped to our slips, carefully laying out our skirt and shoes for a fast exit. My roommate’s job was to set the alarm to allow us five minutes to make it downstairs to eat. My duty was to pile the Johnny Mathis records on my little square 12-inch, 45-rpm player that sat on the tiny table between our beds. We’d pull the covers over our heads and nap to the sounds of that consummate vocalist. His romantic ballads caressed our young dreams and make us feel cozy and comfortable with our lives. I can never hear Johnny’s early big hits, including “Chances Are,” “It’s Not For Me to Say,” and “Wonderful! Wonderful!” without recalling that near daily ritual that my roommate and I shared with Johnny. From that time to this, I feel a deeply personal, almost intimate relationship with Mr. Mathis, and often wonder how many millions of listeners of this music master feel the same way.
The success of the Mathis magic has endured for over half a century. Not bad for a mild-mannered, unassuming singer. He has managed to outlive all the music trends by cultivating a soft romantic appeal, which transcends the social, ethnic, and cultural barriers that have developed over the past several decades. It’s clear his career record speaks for itself, and so I can only speak for myself when I say: the music of Johnny Mathis lights up my life.
Mathis recorded a song in 1993 called “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” It’s obvious that he has the answer: touch hearts, and memories will be made.
Frances Lambert Johnson ’59 taught 42 years, including 34 at the University of Central Florida, where she taught communications, speech, and theater.