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).
Johnny Mathis
I'm Coming Home

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).

Mathis the Gladiator

“A Baby’s Born” and “Life Is a Song Worth Singing” elevated I’m Coming Home beyond the realm of pop. Both songs exceeded any and all expectations of Bell’s collaboration with Mathis, showcasing their exceptional talents in equal measure.

A haunting cascade of strings opened “A Baby’s Born” before Mathis took the mic. Stillness pervaded the anticipation of his voice. The lyrics were a gripping mediation on the cycle of life. “When I croak, I want them to play that at my funeral,” says Bell. “I always wanted to write something that when one dies, one is born. That was the whole idea so the race will never be totally eliminated. Keep the balance. There’s only one way of being born but there’s a ton of ways of dying.”

Mathis illuminated the philosophical sentiment of Creed’s lyrics: “Yesterday was just a dream / Faded schemes now turn silver grey / As old friends pass away / And yet a baby’s born”. Piano and strings enveloped the singer’s voice, accentuating the emotional thrust of his performance. “Thom wrote some of the most beautiful second melodies,” he says. “There are so many wonderful moments in so many of his songs where the orchestra plays an alternative melody than what’s going on.” The multi-layered beauty of “A Baby’s Born” illustrates that dynamic to stunning effect.

As recording sessions at Sigma Sound concluded, Bell saved his greatest masterstroke for last, “Life Is A Song Worth Singing”. The sprawling six-minute magnum opus would be the singer’s “high jump” on the album. “Mathis went into dangerous waters when I did that song,” says Bell. “He was fantastic with ballads but I wanted to introduce a completely new concept for him. I wanted to introduce a new concept for Philadelphia, period.” Opening the album’s original Side Two, “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” didn’t begin with rhythm or melody. Instead gusts of wind howled through the vinyl. “That was Thom blowing into the microphone,” notes Mathis. Bell continues, “I always wanted to do a theme of some kind for a motion picture. I’d never done anything like that. The Philadelphia musicians had never done anything like that, that I know of.” The cinematic grandeur of the track proceeded as strings faded up through the wind, softly crescendoed underneath a quick flourish of notes, then faded back into space. Over the next two and a half minutes, Bell pulled out all the stops in stoking suspense. The rhythm section and horns foreshadowed something big, even epic.

Following three minutes of imposing fanfare, Mathis didn’t sing so much as declare the first lines “Life is a song worth singing / Why don’t you / Sing it”. Bell explains, “When you think of Johnny Mathis, you think of that lovely lilting vibrato in his voice (sings “It’s Not For Me to Say”). The whole idea was to bring him in as a gladiator for a change. It was something brand new for him. It was kind of a rough song for him to sing because he wasn’t used to those kinds of rhythms. He had never done anything like that and that scared him.” Mathis trusted Bell completely. By that point in the session, he knew exactly what Bell needed to manifest his vision. Mathis nailed every nuance of Linda Creed’s lyrics. “He fell right in with it, man” says Bell. “He sang it in one take.”

Would the public accept Johnny Mathis as a gladiator? Judging from the album’s pre-release response, the answer was obvious. “I usually don’t go to music conventions,” says Bell. “The first time I did that was with the Spinners at Atlantic. You know how guys are drinking, talking, and carrying on at these conventions. I said, ‘Don’t even announce (the Mathis album), man. Just play it over these 9,000 representatives from promotion and marketing and manufacturers.’ All of a sudden, Mathis comes on. About 40 seconds in, it got real quiet. People started looking around. They put their glasses downs. The cigarette smoke dissipated. When the whole thing was over, that’s when they said, ‘That’s the new Johnny Mathis’. Those promotion guys said, ‘Give me the record, man! I gotta get this record first. I can do 40,000 in one week!'” Columbia executives were no less enthusiastic about I’m Coming Home. “When I took it to the promotion department at the company they couldn’t believe it. Their eyes opened up. They finally had some product on him that they really could sink their teeth into, something that was brand new from a new era. They set up different marketing and promotion things for him. He did Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore. They had him on a whole campaign that he had not done in years.”

Columbia selected the title track as the lead single. “I’m Coming Home” made its Hot 100 debut on 22 September 1973, the same week that Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” held the top spot on both the pop and R&B charts. The single would keep Mathis on the chart for ten weeks, peaking at #75. It was his highest-charting single in the nine years since “Listen Lonely Girl” had landed at #62 during the autumn of 1964. “Life Is a Song Worth Singing” fared even better. It bowed on the Hot 100 the week-ending 29 December 1973 where it would usher in 1974 and ultimately peak at #54 during its twelve-week run.

Elsewhere, Mathis scored hits in other formats, including R&B. “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” climbed all the way to #65, a considerable feat since his very last appearance on the R&B singles chart had been a decade earlier for “What Will Mary Say”. Bell explains the significance of the singer’s success in the R&B market: “He’d been labelled a pop act and that’s who he was,” he says. “It was a total rebirth for him in areas that the label skipped over because they hadn’t needed those R&B stations, though they would have helped with more sales. We got airplay on stations where he’d never gotten airplay before. He got sales where he’d never gotten sales before.” Just as impressive, “I’m Coming Home” topped the Easy Listening (Adult Contemporary) chart on 29 September 1973, giving the singer his first number one hit on any chart since “Chances Are”.

Fueling Mathis’ resurgence, the singer made the first of several appearances on Soul Train. No audience had ever seen Mathis in a fur and feather-trimmed leather coat as he serenaded the crowd with “I’m Stone In Love With You” and “Foolish”. He reflects fondly on the experience. “You get caught up in the kids,” he says. “They are absolutely welcoming you, no matter what you’re doing. They go with it. That’s what was so wonderful.” Mathis subsequently learned that one of the most famous kids in the world was also a fan of I’m Coming Home. “I was on an airplane and this little kid came and knelt down beside me,” he remembers. “He was in second class. I was upfront. He said, ‘Mr. Mathis I’m a big fan of yours’. It was Michael Jackson. He had listened to the album and loved this one particular song.” In fact, Jackson had previously shared his admiration for Mathis in a 1971 interview with Right On! magazine, “Before I began to develop my own style, I wanted to sound just like Johnny,” he said. “I had never heard such a smooth voice before.”

Having the future King of Pop attest to the greatness of both Johnny Mathis and I’m Coming Home is but a sliver of the album’s legacy. At the 17th Annual Grammy Awards, which spanned an eligibility period of October 1973 — October 1974, Thom Bell won the very first Grammy ever awarded for “Producer of the Year”. The release of “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” in December 1973 surely influenced the Recording Academy’s recognition of Bell’s production prowess. Though I’m Coming Home only reached #115 on the Billboard 200, chart success was almost besides the point. It returned Mathis to the public eye as a more youthful and contemporary force than he’d been even ten years earlier. It was also a crucial factor towards galvanizing the singer’s profile as the ’70s progressed, culminating in 1978 when his duet with Deniece Williams “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” topped the charts. Of course, other artists would popularize key songs that Mathis introduced on I’m Coming Home, including Bell’s completely reworked production of “I’m Coming Home” for the Spinners on Mighty Love. Teddy Pendergrass also selected “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” as the title of his 1978 solo set for PIR. Two decades after I’m Coming Home, Bell would revisit “A Baby’s Born” with James Ingram on the singer’s Always You (1993) album.

I’m Coming Home still resonates with Mathis for more personal reasons. Of the 86 albums he’s recorded, it held a very special place for his father, Clem. “It was my father’s favorite album that I made,” he says. “My dad and I were inseparable all our lives. He was my best pal. He would sit and listen to I’m Coming Home ad nauseam. Every time I play it, I think about dad. I start sobbing because my dad had that album on every time I ever saw him.” The singer’s father had a chance to share his gratitude with Thom Bell. “He thanked me so much,” Bell recalls. “He said I was the first person that ever recorded his son like he was supposed to be recorded. I said, ‘Thank you sir’. That really made me feel good.”

To this day, I’m Coming Home retains a vitality that’s outlived other albums from the era. The Second Disc / Real Gone Music’s Life Is A Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions (2015), a double set that pairs I’m Coming Home with Bell’s follow-up for the singer Mathis Is… (1977), underscores the enduring appeal of the producer’s unique approach in recording Johnny Mathis. “It took me in an area mentally that was totally new,” notes Bell. “I needed that extra step. The product we gave out was the very best. From there, I went to other artists and tried to do my best with them but Johnny was something else!” Mathis returns the compliment. “Thom was absolutely perfect for me because he knew exactly what he was doing. I felt all of these songs were so personal. They were just wonderful, the way they were recorded with Thom’s absolute knowing what he wanted me to sing. They were so understated and so charming and so without ego. You can listen to that stuff forever.” Attend a Johnny Mathis concert in 2015 and the esteem he holds for the album is immediately clear: “Life Is a Song Worth Singing” gets a prime slot in his set.

Beyond their collaboration in the studio, Johnny Mathis and Thom Bell have an abiding respect and admiration for each other. “I was, and still am, totally enamored with Thom,” says Mathis. “He’s one of my favorite people. He’s always in a wonderful mood. He’s always excited about something. He’s still learning.” Likewise, Bell is effusive in his praise of Mathis. “The cat is still fantastic,” he exclaims. “You can listen to a million voices but then you hear the supreme. Supreme voices fall in one category: they are the very best, not by song necessarily, but by natural talent and that natural sound that they have. Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti … you know their voices anywhere. When you hear Mathis, he’s with the greatest of them all. There will never be another Mathis. Never.” Some talents simply surpass gold medals.