Chances are, most people would consider a shot at competing in the Olympics the chance of a lifetime.
But when that chance came for Johnny Mathis, he had a better offer. Almost 60 years later, he’s still glad he took it.
So are the audiences who’ve made Mathis a recording and concert favorite around the world — including Las Vegas, where the velvet-voiced singer makes his Smith Center debut Friday in Reynolds Hall.
It’s been about five years since Mathis last performed in Las Vegas — at the hotel formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton.
“I loved singing there,” Mathis says during a telephone interview from the Southern California residence he’s called home for more than a half-century.
But Mathis is eager to experience The Smith Center from the performer’s perspective — and to test its acoustics.
“The thing I’m most concerned about, as a singer, is the sound systems,” he points out. “And at the venues I go to, the sound systems are just magnificent. For someone like myself, it really makes a big difference — even to the point of saving my voice.”
As Mathis explains, it’s all a matter of muscle.
“If you use the proper muscle, you’re going to have some good results,” he says.
And Mathis definitely knows muscle.
A standout athlete in high school and college, he received an invitation to compete as a high-jumper in the 1956 Olympic trials.
But a Columbia Records executive who had heard Mathis singing in his hometown of San Francisco — where he’d been performing since his teens — offered him the chance to go to New York and make his first record.
Some people might have been torn between the two pursuits, but “I had no qualms” about passing up the Olympic dream for the musical reality, he adds, chuckling at the memory. “My dad and I had fantasized about that for a long time,” and when Mathis got his big chance, “Pop was just over the moon about it.”
And no wonder, considering the major role Mathis’ pop played in his musical career.
Mathis didn’t even know his father, Clem, could sing or play the piano — until the day he showed up with what he and his six siblings thought was a pile of wood — because the piano he’d bought for $25 wouldn’t fit through the door of the family’s “tiny little apartment,” Mathis says.
It took until midnight for Mathis’ father to reassemble the pile of wood into a piano, which “he sat down and played,” the singer adds. “I had never known my dad could play the piano. That was the beginning of my love for music.”
From there, Mathis’ father found voice teacher Connie Cox, who agreed to work with the then 13-year-old in exchange for his doing odd jobs around the house. Mathis credits the techniques he learned from her with his longevity as a performer.
And when Mathis started singing in San Francisco nightclubs, his dad did chaperone duty.
“The best guy in the world” is how Mathis recalls his father — who, like his mother, Mildred, was a domestic worker.
“My mom and dad were extraordinary people,” he says. “I’m amazed at what they did, on domestic wages.” And, as a result of their guidance, “I don’t have any problems with life’s little lessons.”
Another reason for his Mathis’ decades-spanning career: “I got lucky along the way,” with “a hit record early in my career.”
That hit record — 1956’s “Wonderful, Wonderful” — became the first in a series of pop-chart winners that also includes “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “Chances Are” (Mathis first No. 1 record, in 1957), “Misty,” “The Twelfth of Never” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” his disco-era duet with Deniece Williams), which topped the charts two decades after “Chances Are.”
Those favorites remain a fixture in Mathis’ concerts, he says, in part because of the response he received when “years ago, I was not so savvy as I am today,” and “I took them out of the show,” he says. “And boy, I heard a ruckus. I think, ‘Boy, they must be sick of it’ — and I got hit upside the head.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the fact that those songs are quite well-written,” Mathis adds. “You wonder if it’s still meaningful, (but) I do enjoy singing them.”
Especially when it means he’s able to enjoy the musical camaraderie of longtime colleagues such as guitarist and production manager Gil Reigers, who’s been playing (and singing) with Mathis for more than 40 years. (A former child actor on sitcom classics such as “Leave It to Beaver” and “My Three Sons,” Reigers learned guitar on the “My Three Sons” set — and Mathis enjoys watching videos of those shows with his guitarist, who “had hair then,” Mathis points out with a laugh. “He doesn’t have hair anymore.”)
In addition to Mathis’ hits, Smith Center patrons also will hear rhythmical Brazilian favorites, along with “some of the songs my dad taught me,” Mathis says, most “songs from Broadway musicals I heard on the radio,” which he cites as “the reason I got interested in singing.
“I do songs I think suit my voice. I’m 78 now — and it’s very important I choose wisely,” concentrating on “songs I’m capable of doing — and that are up to the standard of what I did at the time.”
The voice may be older, but it’s still there, Mathis says.
“That’s the thing,” he acknowledges. “Every morning when you wake up — and every night, before you go to bed, you ask, ‘Is it still going to be there?’ ”
Mathis may wonder from time to time about his voice, but he never wonders about his love for music, citing still more words of wisdom from his father.
“Dad was pretty pragmatic,” Mathis says, recalling his father’s advice: “ ‘If it’s fun, do it — and when it’s not fun, don’t do it.’ ”
Clearly, after spending most of his life making music, Johnny Mathis is still having fun.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272.