Coming Back to 'Coming Home': An Interview with Johnny Mathis and Thom Bell
PopMatters' exclusive interview with Johnny Mathis and Thom Bell celebrates the legacy of a pop music masterpiece, I'm Coming Home (1973).
Olympic medals almost defined the Johnny Mathis story. As a student at San Francisco State College, Mathis excelled in the high jump. Setting one of the university's record jumps (six-feet, five-and-a-half inches) had even earned Mathis an invitation to attend team USA's trials for the 1956 summer Olympics in Melbourne. Of course, he became known for gold records instead of gold medallions, but if ever a Johnny Mathis album epitomizes an Olympian victory, it's I'm Coming Home (1973). Produced by Thom Bell, the ten-song set remains an artistic triumph among the 86 albums Mathis has released over the last six decades. In their exclusive interview with PopMatters, Johnny Mathis and Thom Bell discuss a collaboration that boldly charted new territory in each of their careers.
Columbia Records first introduced Johnny Mathis in 1956 on his self-titled debut, beginning a relationship that has endured for nearly 60 years, save for the singer's brief detour to Mercury Records in the mid-'60s. He was an immediate sensation, landing four major hits on the Hot 100 in 1957 alone: "Wonderful! Wonderful!", "It's Not For Me to Say", the chart-topping "Chances Are", and "The Twelfth of Never". A teenaged Thom Bell was struck by the singer's exquisite vocal tone. "I was fourteen years old," he says. "There's no way you could not bump into Johnny Mathis. He was the next step after Nat "King" Cole. No male singer has ever gone the next step past Johnny Mathis." The singer was soon rewarded with a Grammy nomination for his vocal rendition of Erroll Garner's "Misty" from Heavenly (1959), performing the song on The Ed Sullivan Show amidst other television appearances on programs like What's My Line? and American Bandstand.
Mathis became one of Columbia's most prolific artists, sometimes releasing up to four albums a year. "It was total innocence," he chuckles. "It's amazing that the songs were done so well because, in those days, you had four songs to do in three hours. There was no going back." Powerful and elegant, his voice suited a wealth of material. Songwriters and publishers sought Johnny Mathis to emblazon their copyrights with his distinctive sound. "Companies would beg for him to do those songs," notes Bell. "He would outsell or sell just as well as the original artist. He made a name for himself just doing that."
Mathis also understood the prestige of originating pop standards. "I better do this song before someone else does it," he laughs, recalling some of his earliest sessions. "I wanted to be the first artist on a lot of the songs that I sang from Broadway productions like My Fair Lady and West Side Story." Even as rock 'n' roll dominated the airwaves, Mathis maintained his hold on the pop charts. Between 1957 and 1965, he scored 38 hits on the Hot 100, including Top 10 hits like "Gina" (1962) and "What Will Mary Say" (1963).
Parallel to the singer's ascent, Thom Bell emerged from Philadelphia's fervent music scene. While studying classical music and training to be a concert pianist, he was enlisted by Kenny Gamble for his group Kenny Gamble & the Romeos. The two also formed a duo, Kenny and Tommy, and released a single called "Someday You'll Be My Love" (1962). After writing lead sheets for various studios, Bell was hired by Philly-based label Cameo-Parkway (home of Chubby Checker, the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp) to write, arrange, and produce for their roster. He achieved his first major success after trimming the Five Guys down to a trio. Recast as the Delfonics, the vocal group soared to the Top 5 in 1968 with "La-La Means I Love You" on the Philly Groove label.
Bell's lushly orchestrated productions were notably different from the earthier sound that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were developing with acts like the O'Jays on their Neptune label. "Because I was classically orientated, a simple back beat was just not my cup of tea," Bell explains. "I was just being what I'd grown up trying to be -- a concert pianist -- but that world of classical music overlapped into what I was doing in creating songs and creating records." Though Bell partnered with Gamble & Huff to form their joint publishing company, Mighty Three Music, and would later write arrangements for some of the duo's productions at Philadelphia International Records (PIR), he remained an independent producer. "I wasn't nailed down to the 'Philadelphia sound', whatever that sound was. Maybe I was in the beginning, but I branched out. My job was strictly the artists outside of Philadelphia International."
The producer continued to write and produce hits for the Delfonics, like the gold-selling "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" (1970), before producing the Stylistics' eponymous 1971 debut, which also spun gold through Bell's compositions with Linda Creed, "You Are Everything", "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)", "Betcha by Golly Wow", and "People Make the World Go Round". Before long, Bell also developed a penchant for successfully revamping established acts like former Motown group the Spinners, whose number one R&B album The Spinners (1972) inaugurated their Atlantic years and yielded a pair of Top Five gold singles, "I'll Be Around" (co-written by Bell with Phil Hurtt) and "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love".
Following several smashes on both the pop and R&B charts, Bell was ready to approach what he calls "the sterling of sterling: Mathis. I kept hearing Mathis in my mind. You work hard reaching that pinnacle to work with him. And that's what I did. I worked as hard as I could. After I started with the Spinners is when I told my manager, 'I'd like to grab Mathis.'" At the time, Clive Davis helmed Columbia Records and had also engineered Gamble & Huff's deal to distribute Philadelphia International through Columbia's parent company CBS. Bell continues, "I knew I could produce Johnny, but I had to talk Clive Davis into it. He said, 'Thank you very much. You're a nice producer, but for black music.' He made that mistake that a lot of people make. Don't get the hue of the skin mixed up with the kind of music I make. It took awhile but I finally got Mathis."
The singer's recording career needed an overhaul, and he welcomed the opportunity to work with one of the industry's most respected and successful young producers. "I was really amazed when Clive Davis asked me if I'd love to sing with Tommy Bell," Mathis recalls. "I was thrilled. I was looking for a little adventure because most of the stuff that I had done was pretty safe. No surprises." Indeed, his last four studio albums with producer Jerry Fuller, The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) (1972), Song Sung Blue (1972), Me & Mrs. Jones (1973), and Killing Me Softly With Her Song (1973) emphasized contemporary pop ballads but generated only modest sales. His presence on the charts had also waned. Since 1965, he'd dented the Hot 100 only once with "Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet" (1969). Meanwhile, his earlier albums and Greatest Hits compilations continued to sell well into seven figures. "He was a catalog artist, so Columbia wasn't doing anything special for him but standard operating procedure," Bell explains. "There's a new Mathis album. They're going to put it out and it's going to sell 200,000. They could always depend on that type of profit all the time but then the sales dropped down to maybe 80,000. He was still Johnny, so where was the problem? I found out it was production. The product was not as strong as it could have been. The arrangements, the studio, the mixing, and the mastering were not there. What I had to do was make sure that his product was good. The songs had to be good and, to the best of my ability, the sound had to be good."
Mathis traveled to Philadelphia for a meeting with Bell and Linda Creed. "He came into my little raggedy office and was as nice as pie," says Bell. "We sat down with him for a couple of hours. He catches on quick! Not only are you studying him, he's studying you." Mathis continues, "They asked me about my fantasies and I made up all this stuff. I don't know whether I told the truth or not," he confides with a coy laugh. "They wanted something so I told them. That's the way they got the idea of the album. They're talking to me and getting my thoughts about different things. I thought that was the most marvelous thing. Nobody had ever done that before." Based on their initial meeting with Mathis, Bell and Creed wrote a batch of songs for the singer. It would mark the very first time Mathis recorded an album where the songs were composed expressly for him.
"They're like internal musings," says Mathis when describing the songs Bell and Creed furnished for I'm Coming Home. That particular quality was evidenced on the opening title track, a song where Mathis leaves Hollywood, weary from his quest for fame and fortune. "Using people just ain't my thing / And I won't dangle from any string / To please some fool I don't care about / They turned me inside out / I'm going home." Mathis sang the song as if he wrote the words himself. "It's him all the way, man," Bell exclaims. "He just looked at the song, took a deep breath, and said, 'Linda really captured me.' Yessiree! I said, 'That's the reason we sat with you to see what kind of person you are, to see what makes you tick.'" This Johnny Mathis was not helpless like a "kitten up a tree"; he was in full command of his destiny.
Musically, Bell fashioned an arrangement that further amplified the visual cues in Creed's narrative. "I intended to meet the obligations of the lyrics of what he's saying," he explains. "It's got to match. If the arrangement does not fit, I'm not ashamed to throw it in the trash. Just because I wrote it doesn't mean it has to be in there." Each musical component on "I'm Coming Home" painted a vivid scene: the interplay between the bass and drums summoned a train's chugging rhythm on the tracks while the strings evoked rolling landscapes glimpsed from a passenger's window. The soft horns simulated a distant train whistle heralding Mathis' arrival.
"I'd Rather Be Here With You" examined an entertainer's life through another lens. This time it's a troubadour making the rounds in clubs and cafés but all the applause doesn't quell the yearning for love: "Friday night when I get paid / I catch a train headed for LA / I hear they know my name / I'd rather be here with you." Mathis was moved by Creed's approach to lyrics. "Linda's visions were so positive, so loving, so caring," he says. "How could you not have affection for that kind of writing? Anybody who performs in a musical way... we're all seeking some sort of gratification and some sort of mutual association, at least in my mind. To find it so vividly from her lyrics was a revelation for me, and still is."
Creed channelled the singer's soul on "Foolish". When Mathis later appeared on Soul Train, Don Cornelius cited the song as "the most perfect example we could find in regard to how well the writers understood Johnny's talent and his personality" (23 February 1974). "John is just a natural, sensitive guy," says Bell. "That was something that Creed drew from John." The producer even witnessed certain scenarios that echoed lyrics like "I'll lend a hand to any man / And if that's wrong then you can / Call me foolish". He remembers, "We were walking down the street in San Francisco. Mathis would see a street person and dig in his pocket to give him some money but his manager didn't allow him. If he had $1,000 in his pocket, he'd give it all away. Tears would come in his eyes. He's that sensitive. You can hear it in his voice."
In fact, Bell purposely highlighted aspects of Mathis' voice that most producers had previously overlooked. "Everyone who recorded him had recorded his voice high," he says. "I took him from way in the air and brought him down. He has a much more mature, rich sound singing a little lower. He was so relieved. He couldn't believe I was taking him down." Mathis' performance on "And I Think That's What I'll Do" exemplified Bell's approach. As the character in the song, Mathis has to choose between the allure of an affair or his marriage. Whereas other producers and singers might push the vocals to the outer bounds of emotion, Bell kept Mathis in a more pensive, contemplative frame of mind that informed his vocal performance.
Amidst the original material that Bell wrote with Creed for I'm Coming Home, he also paired Mathis with a couple of hits that would be familiar to record buyers. "We wanted to maintain those 80,000 customers Mathis had just by him doing other people's tunes," he says. "In that case, let's look in the catalog and see what we can do." Prior to I'm Coming Home, Mathis had covered the Stylistics' "Betcha by Golly Wow" on The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) and "Break Up to Make Up" on Killing Me Softly With Her Song. For the I'm Coming Home sessions, Mathis recorded two more hits that Bell and Creed had penned for the group, "I'm Stone In Love With You" and "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)". Tailoring his sumptuous orchestrations to Mathis, Bell took a wholly different approach from his original productions led by the signature falsetto of Russell Thompkins, Jr. "Johnny loved those songs," he says. "He did a heck of a job. I can hear him now..."
Throughout I'm Coming Home, Bell experimented with different moods and textures. "Sweet Child" was perhaps the most buoyant of the bunch. Its touches of marimba, güiro, and flute gave it a lightness that complemented Creed's romantic storyline. All the elements conspired to make "Sweet Child" one of the album's most irresistibly tuneful moments. "If you take a lyric away from a melody, that lyric has to stand alone," adds Bell. "It has to be strong. If you take the melody without the lyric, the melody has to stand strong by itself. When you put the artist in with that, the artist has to stand strong. If you have all three strong components, they don't have to be hits but they have to be good." Far beyond the walls of Sigma Sound Studios, the seeds of the song's island influences later blossomed when reggae star Freddie McGregor covered "Sweet Child" on I Am Ready (1982).
"I Just Wanted to Be Me" was the sole track that hailed from outside Bell's partnership with Creed yet still fit the album's overall theme of introspection. "Bruce Hawes came to me with the song," Bell remembers. "I thought it was a great tune." Mathis gave a characteristically strong performance on the song, effortlessly navigating its winding melody. "This guy sings so in tune," Bell exclaims. "In fact, if he sings something a little flat it irks him. He'll say, 'Wait. Let me get this in my head a second.' He's not going to make that mistake again." An interesting byproduct of the song was Bell's idea to match Hawes with Joe Jefferson and Charlie Simmons. "I put them with the Spinners and that was their prime job," he says. "I thought they were the best for that." The songwriting trio would subsequently compose the majority of the Spinners' Mighty Love (1974) album and contribute songs for the group's other Bell-produced sets throughout the '70s, including the number one R&B hit "Games People Play" (1975).