Photo: Courtesy of Real Gone Music

Better Late Than Never: An Interview with Johnny Mathis

In 1981, Johnny Mathis cut an album with the Chic Organization. Columbia Records got cold feet and the project was vaulted for nearly four decades. Mathis talks to PopMatters about the missing piece that's finally been made part of his official discography.

I Love My Lady
Johnny Mathis
Real Gone Music / Second Disc Records
1 February 2019

Johnny Mathis’s collaboration with Chic happened at a time of unprecedented unrest in popular music. The Chic Organization was weathering the ‘disco sucks’ storm and its aftermath. Despite the fact that Chic weren’t and never had been a disco band (they were more accurately described as a musical outfit that utilized disco), they were among the chief suspects. Anyone with even a glancing familiarity with their hits (“Le Freak”, “Good Times”), would surely have known that they were a world away from Disco Duck, The Ethel Merman Disco Album, or “In the Navy”, but that wasn’t enough to spare them from the anti-disco scrutiny sweeping America. It was an ugly populist movement that resented everything disco stood for: racial minorities, gay rights, permissiveness, sexual freedom, wealth, and dancing.

Steve Dahl of WLUP in Chicago was the ‘disco sucks’ mastermind. He affected a lisp when he said the word ‘disco’ on air, making it clear just what he thought of the genre; it was indisputably gay. Not only gay but black. Not only black but Latin. Not only Latin but popular with sexually liberated clubbers on either coast who frequented places that not everyone could get into. It was elitist. It put the minorities in charge and, for once, the straight, white, male, conservative rock fans were the ones being left out. They weren’t going to tolerate that perceived slight. Discs were acquired so that they could be smashed on air. It was the biggest case of record-burning since the one prompted by John Lennon’s 1966 ‘Jesus’ comments, culminating in the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, the White Sox baseball park in Chicago, on 12 July 1979, which was preceded by several other public anti-disco events throughout the country.

Nile Rodgers compared the Disco Demolition Night to a Nazi book burning. It changed Chic. 1979’s Risqué was the last Chic album to feature the original frothy, frisky, joyful style they’d been pioneering since their debut two years earlier. 1980’s Diana (for Diana Ross) and, to a lesser extent, King of the World (for Sheila and B. Devotion) would be the final external projects featuring the original Chic sound. In fact, King of the World was something of a portent, featuring more rock guitar than usual for a Chic production. From 1980’s Real People onwards, Chic were different. It was a difference that might, to some ears, have been slight, but it was a pivotal one nonetheless; Chic had been shaken by the ‘disco sucks’ movement and were now, understandably, second-guessing their audience and the marketplace. Their music was more self-conscious, more aware of the need to curry favor. Their ebullient pop melodies were less in evidence, and instead, the group experimented with rhythm and a planed-down, dance-funk sound.

It was at this juncture that Chic took on three projects; their fifth album, Take It Off, plus Debbie Harry’s solo debut, KooKoo (unusual for a Chic project, in that some of the songs were written with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein) and Johnny Mathis’s I Love My Lady. Even though it hasn’t gone down in music history as a particularly well-liked album, KooKoo was the most successful, going Gold in the US and Silver in the UK, with an elaborate promotional campaign featuring H.R. Giger-directed videos. I Love My Lady, on the other hand, was withheld from the market; shelved indefinitely. Although the precise reasons for this remain unclear, it’s highly likely that the anti-disco backlash played a part. Indeed, other acts were taking steps to distance themselves from disco; it was no coincidence that after King of the World, Sheila swiftly sought refuge with a rock producer, Keith Olsen, for her follow-up project.

Today, I Love My Lady is an album Johnny Mathis is happy to stand up and be counted for, and he’s been an active participant in the creation and promotion of the 2019 reissue on Real Gone/Second Disc Records. It’s the first time that the album has come out on its own on CD. It first appeared in its entirety two years ago as part of the exhaustive, 67-CD Sony collection, The Voice of Romance. Then, a year later, it had a vinyl issue for Record Store Day. For its new CD incarnation, it’s been redesigned to look much more ‘1981’.

Retro-designing is easier to get wrong than right, and in this instance, an utterly commendable job has been done. Every detail, including the red capitals used on the spine (anyone who bought American Columbia and Epic CDs in the 1980s and 1990s will understand), is perfect. It now looks like it’s always been part of Mathis’ huge Columbia catalogue. Mathis spoke to me about the project on the telephone. He remains one of the most modest people in popular music, seeing himself merely as someone in service to song. I get a distinct impression that this is genuine humility rather than a showbiz affectation.

“I’m lucky that I don’t have to worry about whether my voice is all right or not. I’ve been able to take care of my responsibilities a far as music is concerned. One in a while, someone will mention it and tell me how lucky I am and I have to agree. I used to love singing with a lot of my contemporaries, but along the way, some of them have lost their level of interest because of losing some of their range. I’m just very lucky and very grateful.”

Given that he’s recorded well over 70 studio albums, it’s not easy to nudge Mathis towards very sharp, detailed memories of the Chic sessions. It’s hardly surprising, given that the album didn’t come out and therefore there were no attendant tours or promotional circuits that might help anchor his recollections. “I have a great deal of fondness for Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve loved their music and what we did in the studio was really quite experimental. It was fun. I enjoyed it. I remember they sent a limousine for me every day to go to the studio and I thought that was a big deal. I think it holds up quite nicely as far as what’s going on musical with young kids today.”

I Love My Lady is a curious album. It doesn’t have an “Upside Down” or “My Feet Keep Dancing” on it (perhaps another reason that Columbia lost its nerve). Had the project taken place two years or even one earlier, it would in all likelihood have featured something in the vein of those classic Chic Organization singles. But the 1981 model of Chic was different; by then, they were a post-disco outfit. At first listen, I Love My Lady is like an album without immediately obvious singles. It’s perhaps shown to its best advantage by being listened to in one go as a series of romantic commentaries set to super-tight, rhythmic, sleek post-disco dance music.

Earlier in the decade, Mathis had done some of his very best work with Thom Bell at the helm. Part of the success of his work with the legendary Philly producer was that Bell and his writing partner, Linda Creed, would sit down with Mathis and ask him about where he was in life, and then write songs that spoke to his experiences. “Unique in that regard,” says Mathis. “He was the only person I ever sat down with – he and Linda. We spent hours just talking. He said, ‘What do you do when you get up the morning? Where do you go? Who do you hang out with?’ And from that, he and Linda wrote songs for me to sing. It was one of the most exciting moments in my life, musically.”

Although the Chic approach was different, with songs made up on the go in the studio, what the project shared with the Thom Bell sessions was that the music was created specifically for Mathis. The tracks were by no means cast-offs from other Chic projects. “They were making up melodies as we went along in the studio. It was a process that was different from the recordings I had done up to that time. There was a lot of stopping and starting and stopping and starting. Conversations would be, ‘Maybe we would like to say this in the song, maybe we would like to say that in the song’ and they would change the song right there and then. It was not like anything I’d done before. On-the-spot improvisation. It was fun. I’m thrilled when I listen to it with what was accomplished.”

One big departure for Mathis was the way the songs prioritized other components over melody. Some of the melody lines (e.g. “It’s All Right to Love Me”) were short and clipped and unusual, at a far remove from the long melody lines of American romantic standards.

“There wasn’t too much of a concern about melody. If a melody came along, then fine, if it didn’t, then the other elements of the song would hold up. A lot of it happened by accident. I would try to sing the melody that they would sing for me, and I would get it right maybe 85% of the time. The rest of the time, they said, ‘Oh, well, we’ll use that, it’s OK’. It was fun. I had all these wonderful opportunities because I was in New York all by myself. I had nobody telling me what I had to do and what I didn’t have to do. I just made sure I was on time at the studio. I wasn’t a musical snob in any way. I was young and interested in everything. I was so grateful to meet Bernard and Nile, who were excited about what they were doing and wanted to work with me. Now I listen to it and I really like it a lot. It’s not very melodic, but the rhythms and the effect of singing the same thing over and over again is interesting. It has a child-like quality, not to say that it’s not a grownup recording, but it does have a very youthful excitement to it.”

I Love My Lady opens with “Fall in Love (I Want To)”, a great lost Chic ballad with a blanket of strings, Rodgers’ trademark guitar plucking an intricate, syncopated counterpoint beneath the melody. It has a feeling of upmarket, glamorous yearning. Had the album come out, it’s easy to imagine this wonderful showcase for Mathis’s vocals, complete with a note at the end held for over 25 seconds, doing well on radio. But it’s unclear as to whether the project even reached the stage of singles being discussed and Mathis cheerfully admits to having no idea which songs might have worked on 45. “Haha! None whatsoever.”

Perhaps the other contender would have been the second track, “It’s Alright to Love Me”, with its elegant piano runs and intriguing narrative. Maybe it’s the closest the album comes to having something in the vein of the Diana songs, although it’s more subdued. Boasting two refrains sung to similar melodies (“It’s alright to love me” and then “Go with the flow”), and a typical Chic dance-break passage, it might have thrived had it been given a dedicated single mix that emphasized its catchiest characteristics.

No one has the definitive answer as to what decision-making process kept the album out of earshot for so many decades. “You know these record companies,” says Mathis, “they find a niche that they want to put you in. People want love songs from my kind of voice, and the Chic songs were far away from being love songs. They were like kicking back and experimenting in the garage songs. The mere fact that I did the project goes to show that I was not concerned about what the company was thinking about. They are in the business of selling music, and I was in the business of making it, completely different worlds. You’re lucky when the two can work together. My greatest asset as far as my career is concerned is that I’ve been malleable, opening my ears to what they want and saying, ‘Listen, this is what I’ve got, this is what I’d really love to do’. Somehow it works if you’re lucky.”

During the years in which I Love My Lady was unavailable and merely a persistent internet rumor, not even Mathis had access to the complete recordings, so their re-emergence in 2017 was the first opportunity he’d had in a long time to hear the whole thing. “Sometimes I’m able to take a recording away from the studio,” he explains, “but most of the time it gets gobbled up and hidden away. I had one or two of the Chic songs, and I played them over and over again, but the rest I would think, ‘I wonder what happened to them’.” The answer to that was eventually revealed when The Voice of Romance was released, with I Love My Lady finally being made an official entry in Mathis’s Columbia discography. Prior to that, a handful of tracks had emerged in isolation on greatest hits packages.

It would be an oversight not to mention just how excellent the non-musical aspects of the new I Love My Lady package are – not only Joe Marchese’s thorough, authoritative, engaging notes but also John Sellards’ remarkable design work. Anyone coming across the album by chance and seeing its revised cover might very well assume that it had always been part of Mathis’s published work, so convincingly 1981 is its new appearance, with an unusually informal-looking Mathis in front of a backdrop of stars, and two typefaces that look perfectly turn-of-the-decade. It’s a photo shoot that Mathis can’t recall. “Where did I get that shirt I’m wearing?”, he wonders. “It’s not a glamor picture of me on the cover. It’s more a working man look. I kinda like it.”

In the end, when I Love My Lady was canceled, Mathis returned to the producer with whom he’d spent much of the 1970s, Jack Gold. There would be no new Mathis album in 1981. Instead, the following year came Friends In Love. Like its predecessor, Different Kinda Different (another Jack Gold production) it was an adult-contemporary collection mixing pop, soul, duets and musical theater. For Mathis, the Chic disappointment was merely a blip in an otherwise happy career.

“When I think about it,” says Mathis, “I go ‘how lucky have I been all these years?’ No big train wrecks, nothing that destroys a whole career or anything of that nature. There is a way that it’s done, and I haven’t a clue as to how, because it’s made up as you go along. You wake up in the morning, you have certain inspirations, or you don’t. I’m lucky. I have enthusiasm. I love what I do, and I’ve been able to meet people who have shown me how to go about it in a way that might work. I’m just amazed that here I am, 83 years old. I made my first recording when I was 18, and I’m still running around looking for stuff to sing, still going out, still going on stage. I have wonderful musicians, some of them have been with me for over 40 years. It’s the most amazing kind of unbelievable way of living, but it all depends on health. If you’re healthy, you can do it, and if you’re not, you can’t.”