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Mathis recorded three Christmas records during his 50's and 60's prime - two
for Columbia (the label for which he achieved his greatest successes) and one for
Mercury. Then, he waxed three more for Columbia during the long denouement of his
career, plus numerous reissues, repackages, and retrospectives. That's a lot of
holiday music, and at least one of those albums - the very first, Merry
Christmas (Columbia, 1958) - has been an enduring favorite among consumers
ever since it's release, hitting the charts nearly every holiday season for 40
years running, from 1958 through 1999.
But frankly, but I've never found Merry
Christmas or any of its myriad successors to be all that compelling. Inarguably,
Johnny Mathis has a unique voice. Yet he suffers from an almost willful lack of
soul. Ultimately, I find him boring. Perhaps that makes me less than an ideal judge
of this much-beloved music, but Johnny doesn't offer his listeners a lot beyond
his impeccable craft. The missing elements - things like passion, grit, emotion,
humor - are the true heart of great music.
Still, there's no discounting the historical importance of these albums, nor can
we deny the place they hold in the hearts of the public. For many, Johnny's rendition
of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" tops even Nat King
Cole's masterful interpretation, and Mathis' "Sleigh Ride" is perhaps
the definitive vocal version of Leroy Anderson's immortal melody. At his best, on
upbeat songs like "A Marshmallow World," Mathis exudes a sort of chirpy
glee that perhaps explains why he has become so closely identified with Christmas
Mathis was the last of the crooners, marketed as a romantic ballad singer just as
teen-oriented rock 'n' roll was on the rise. Not surprisingly, his career focused
more on the adult-oriented album market, and he barely brushed the singles charts
with his Christmas music, scoring minor hits with "Little Drummer Boy" in
1963 and "Frosty The Snowman" in 2002. But, as mentioned above, Mathis
has been a fixture on the albums charts every winter for a period spanning four decades
- and counting! In and of itself, Merry
Christmas (orchestrated by Percy Faith, by the way) charted most of those years,
starting with a #3 performance on the pop charts the year of its release, followed
by three Top 10 appearances during the next four years.
Johnny Mathis recorded for Columbia Records nearly his entire career. He briefly
jumped ship, however, forming his own company, Global Records, distributed by Mercury. His debut for the label was his second holiday album, Sounds
Of Christmas (Mercury, 1963). Arguably, Sounds
Of Christmas is a better record than Merry
Christmas, if only because it contains several songs outside the standard seasonal
repertoire and apparently written for the project. These include the title song and "Have
Reindeer, Will Travel" (both by Jerry Livingston and Paul Webster); Sammy Cahn
and Jimmy Van Heusen's "The Secret Of Christmas"; and "Christmas Is
A Feeling In The Heart" by Joe Darion and George Kleinsinger.
returned to Columbia in 1967, and they reintroduced Sounds
Of Christmas in
1972 as Christmas
With Johnny Mathis, trimming two songs from its track listing. Meanwhile, his
third holiday album, Give
Me Your Love For Christmas (Columbia, 1969) had been a major success, hitting
#1 on Billboard's Christmas album chart and eventually selling a million copies.
In 1970, he waxed a non-LP single, "Sign Of The Dove" b/w "Christmas Is" (cowritten by Percy Faith),
that flopped - and would become pretty scare until many years later.
A long dry (warm?) spell followed, broken only
by 1984's Johnny
Mathis For Christmas, which collected tracks from his previous two albums,
and a 1980 single with Gladys Knight that was later included on her album, That
Special Time of Year (1982). Ultimately, the indefatigable Mathis returned with his fourth
holiday album, Christmas
Eve With Johnny Mathis in 1986, eventually followed by The
Christmas Album (2002) and Sending You A Little Christmas (2013), which includes a duet with Billy Joel.
Over the years, Johnny Mathis' music - never exactly avant garde - grew
ever more conservative, less interesting. But, even if you disagree with me about
the quality of his work - and clearly, many of you do - that's a lot of Christmas
music to contend with. Until the latter-day advent of The Complete Christmas Collection (more on that later), the logical solution presented itself with The
Christmas Music Of Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection (1993). This straightforward
survey of Mathis' first four Christmas albums is smartly selected (ostensibly by
Johnny himself) and logically programmed. At 14 tracks, it's too brief, but I recommend
it by a slim margin over original albums like Merry
Christmas, especially since Sounds
Of Christmas has never been reissued in its original
Compare Personal Collection, for instance, to Gold:
50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration (2006), a companion to Johnny's 50th
Anniversary Celebration released earlier that same year. A 50th anniversary is an auspicious occasion, right? You'd think so, but both anniversary albums
run fewer than 20 tracks, taking an utterly cursory glance at Mathis'
lengthy career. The Christmas
Celebration CD, in fact, includes just 15 songs - inexcusable given
the nature of the medium and the fact that it has to survey more material. Consequently, it all but
ignores his superior 1963 and 1969 albums. Even worse, it includes a duet with the dreaded Mannheim
Steamroller on "O Tannenbaum." Yikes!
Which brings us back to The
Christmas Music Of Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection. It, too, was a companion piece - this time to a vastly superior boxed
set released the following year. So, I recommend seeking out these earlier
discs - the former because it focuses on Mathis' strongest Christmas music, the
the listener the broad perspective Johnny Mathis' music deserves - even if it's
not my particular cup of tea.
Having said that, long after I drew these conclusions, Real Gone Music released The Complete Christmas Collection 1958-2010 (2015), which compiled the complete contents of five Johnny Mathis Christmas albums (all but the last one) plus non-LP singles, album tracks, collaborations, and more. Exhaustive? Almost. Exhausting? Depends on your perspective. I picked it up for its historical import and impressive, scholarly approach to a type of music usually dismissed as trifle. Kudos for that. But, do I want to listen to over four hours of Johnny Mathis Christmas music? If you've read this far, you know the answer. [top of page]
- The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (1958)
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1969)
- A Marshmallow World (1963)
- Sleigh Ride (1958)
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