March 2, 2009
1956: Gold medals or Gold records? An athletic crooner makes a life-changing choice
“Send blank contracts”
Of course you know Johnny Mathis. The velvet-voiced crooner is a fixture of the softer side of American pop culture, providing reliably romantic background music for cuddling couples for over sixty years.
He’s sold 350 million records worldwide, his Greatest Hits album was on the Billboard charts for almost a decade, and at one point he had five albums on the charts at once, a feat equaled only by Barry Manilow and Frank Sinatra.
But what you might not have known about Johnny Mathis is this. The music world discovered him right here in San Francisco. And the story is more interesting than that — his musical calling deflected Johnny from a completely different career — as a world-class athlete.
Johnny’s family moved to San Francisco when he was just a kid. His father Clem, an ex-vaudeville character, spotted his musical aptitude early, and taught the boy every song he knew. Johnny was crazy about performing, and sang wherever there was a stage — at school, in the church choir, even competing in amateur talent competitions.
When Johnny turned 13, his father brought him to a local voice teacher, who also saw promise in the boy. In exchange for his doing odd jobs around the house, she gave Johnny classical vocal training throughout his high school and early college years.
“… best all-around athlete to come out of San Francisco … “
Speaking of high school, out at George Washington High in the Richmond District, Johnny wasn’t known for singing so much as for his athletic skills. He became the star of the track and field team, and lettered in basketball for four straight years.
In 1954 he entered San Francisco State University. Though his vocal training continued, just as in high school, Johnny made his mark on campus as an athlete. His name pops up all over the sports pages of 1950s San Francisco newspapers, often referred to as â€œthe best all-around athlete to come out of the San Francisco Bay Areaâ€.
In that first year at SF State he shattered future basketball legend Bill Russell’s high jump record by elevating to 6â€-5 1/2â€™ — just two inches short of the contemporary Olympic record, and a number that still ranks among the University’s top 15.
The Black Hawk nightclub
A fellow student of Johnny’s happened to be a member of a jazz combo with a regular gig down at the Black Hawk nightclub. The Black Hawk holds an almost mythical status in the annals of west coast jazz, having hosted everyone who was anyone during the golden decade of the fifties, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Gillespie, Tatum, Getz, Billie Holliday … forget it, the Black Hawk was the place.
Johnny’s pal knew that the star athlete could sing as well as sweat, so he invited him down to the Tenderloin for a Sunday afternoon jam session. When Helen Noga, the club’s co-owner, heard him sing, she insisted on becoming the kid’s manager.
Two weeks later, Johnny was singing regularly at Ann Deeâ€™s 440 Club in North Beach. As he worked the stage, his new manager worked the phones, trying to get her protegÃ© a recording contract.
“Send blank contracts”
In September of ’55, Columbia Records’ jazz guy George Avakian just happened to be on vacation in San Francisco. Helen Noga hounded the poor man until he agreed to spend an evening listening to her boy.
As the story goes, Avakian heard Johnny sing just once and fired off a telegram to New York City:
â€œHave found phenomenal 19 year old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.â€
The executive returned to the East Coast and told Johnny to go back to school — he’d be sent for when the time was right.
In early 1956, Johnny’s athletic prowess was recognized at a national level. He received an invitation to the Olympic Trials for the American track and field team, which would go on to compete in the Melbourne Summer Games. This momentous news had barely had a chance to sink in when another invitation arrived; this one the promised summons from Columbia Records.
There aren’t too many people who have the talent and skills to even imagine facing such a dilemma. Teenaged Johnny Mathis stood at the crossroads of his career, facing the single most important decision of his life: should he pursue gold medals — or gold albums?
Papa Clem — the veteran performer — cast the deciding vote, advising his son to sing his way to stardom. In March of 1956, 53 years ago this week, Johnny Mathis left San Francisco and headed for New York. His first record — “Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Song” — was released later that year, and the rest — as they say — is history.
San Francisco remembers
Though the world knows him as the “man with the velvet voice”, a permanent member of the Grammy Hall of Fame, and yes, the proud owner of dozens of gold and platinum records — the Bay Area hasn’t forgotten Johnny’s athletic past. in 1982, San Francisco State inaugurated the annual Johnny Mathis Invitational Track & Field Meet, an event which will be held for the 27th time this coming April 4th.
He doesn’t make an appearance every year, but once in a while Johnny shows up to recall his athletic glory days and to cheer San Francisco on.