[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]
Sometimes great singers lose their best voices as they age. I’m thinking of The Kingston Trio, Paul Simon, even the awesome Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. It’s fact of life: Age can take a toll on the pipes of a singer. Except for Johnny Mathis.
Friday, December 2nd, the 76 year old Mathis performed at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, singing as if he were at the height of his vocal powers. He still flashes an extraordinary range, from his rich baritone, to the highest tenor, all with power or softness as the song demands, without a single wobble or crack, or backing down from a single challenging note. The vocal range and quality that have carried him on a long and glorious singing career are still very much intact.
Matching his stature as one of America’s great singers, the Paramount Theater is one of America’s great theaters. Built in 1931 by noted architect Timothy Pflueger, this Art Deco masterpiece, after extensive renovations completed in 1973, is a jewel in the Oakland entertainment scene, and on the National Register of Historic Sites. Ironically, though he grew up in San Francisco, this was the first time Johnny had ever played the Paramount.
A few downsides: On a few songs, Johnny had the help of back-up singers—on tape– totally unnecessary with a voice like his. Between his sets, the audience was entertained by Gary Mule Deer, who had them in stitches with joke after joke—many of which were “borrowed” from the internet. Still, Mule Deer does an outstanding Johnny Cash impression that left the audience wanting more. Finally, Johnny, of course, gets to choose his own songs, but instead of building to one of his many showstoppers, he chose to end with a non-Christmas Latin beat medley that showcased the band more than his voice. And for a Christmas junkie like me, any show billed as a Christmas show should be at least three-fourths Christmas songs, but that was not to be.
None of that detracts though from the essential truth that Johnny delivered, really delivered, on every song before a huge audience of long-time fans. Applause erupted only two or three notes into the introduction of most songs by this audience that seemed to know him and his work very well. “Misty,” “Secret Love,” “The Twelfth of Never,” “Stranger in Paradise”—these were just some of the showstoppers that caused explosions of applause, even as the song began. His Christmas repertoire included “Winter Wonderland,” “Frosted Windowpanes,” “The Christmas Song,” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” An energetic and passionate “We Need a Little Christmas” seemed the dominant song in this set and had feet tapping everywhere.
When the book of Great American singers is written, Johnny Mathis—the teenaged track sensation from San Francisco’s Washington High—will be ranked right up there with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Barbara Streisand, ranked right up there with the best in the land. My only real problem with the show was that my wife elbowed me every time I tried to sing along.