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Why the legendary Johnny Mathis still gets stage fright

Johnny Mathis and Alex Cohen standing in his living room.
Johnny Mathis and Alex Cohen standing in his living room.
Jacob Margolis

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On April 4th, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be joined by a very special musical guest at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the legendary crooner Johnny Mathis.

Mathis has lived in Southern California for decades, but this is his first time performing at the venue. Recently Alex Cohen had a chance to sit down with him at his Hollywood Hills home. 

Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

For the full interview, check out the audio attached to this post.

How has your voice changed over the years?

"My voice isn't too much different. I've lost a lot of the high notes, of course, that all of us singers do that. But I've learned to sing I think in a more pleasing manner for people. And I've learned to relax a little bit. It was not always easy for me. I was very nervous. I had stage fright for years and years and I could hear it in my singing. But since I've done it so often for so many years, you'd think that I'd relax a little bit and I think that I have."

In the liner notes for your album "Ole" you said that there's no music you'd rather sing than latin music. And no music that you'd rather listen to. When did you first hear latin music and why does it mean so much to you?

"I think that the thing that really kind of knocked me flat was when I went to Brazil and I heard for the first time some of the music of [Antonio Carlos] Jobim. And those incredible writers of the songs. Mostly the songs from the motion picture 'Orfeu Negro.' I learned every nuance of every song from that film. As a matter of fact, Miles Davis took me to see that movie at a little art house in New York. To this day I close my performance with some of the music from the movie..."

When people think of Johnny Mathis one holiday tends to come to mind and of course that holiday is Christmas. How do you spend the holiday?

"You know, what I try to do is perform because I love singing Christmas music. It brings back all of my childhoods, coming from a large family... And of course I sang in lots of choirs... I also wanted to have an opportunity to sing some music that my parents were involved with and that would be Christmas... And Christmas absolutely blossomed. My albums did well... And over the years, gosh I've recorded a lot of Christmas albums and it's a very very big part of my life, Christmas time."

What do you do on the actual day? Do you listen to your own albums?

"I do. I listen for a lot of reasons. Mostly because I kind of remind myself of what's available, what can I sing that's a little different for the audience. Some of the stuff I absolutely don't remember recording it, it's been so long. But I do like to try to throw in something a little different for the audience once in a while. Because a lot of these people who come to see have come back, many many times."

Are you nervous about your performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall?

"[I'm] a lot nervous, yeah. Because it's all a matter of what you envision, I guess, as being important... I invite a lot of my friends to some of the performances that I do locally and some of them know that I'm involved with music, but they're not quite sure how. And so it's kind of fun to play golf with a lot of my friends and then invite them to hear me sing once in a while. Because a lot of them have never heard me sing other than maybe on the radio. And they weren't quite sure if it was me or not, because I'm too closely associated with them..."