Country Johnny Mathis, not to be confused with the pop singer of the same name was born September 28, 1930 in Maude, Texas, was known as both a Country singer and songwriter. He grew up the middle child of 7 children as the son of a holiness preacher. He learned to sing and play guitar in his dad’s church and the family picked cotton to make ends meet. By the time Johnny was 15, he quit school and began playing in the honky tonks in East Texas. He discovered music was a good way to stay out of the cotton fields!
Country Johnny Mathis, as he was labeled early in his career to distinguish himself from the other emerging singer of the same name, began his career as a recording artist on the StarTalent label in 1949. He would go on to record for a number of record labels during his music career including Chess, Columbia, D Records, Mercury, Decca, United Artists, Little Darlin’, Hilltop and Stonegate. As a part of the duet, Jimmy and Johnny, he scored a Top 10 hit in 1953 with the song, “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will” released on Chess Records. In 1955, Jimmy and Johnny were teamed withElvis Presley and other Louisiana Hayride stars for tour dates in the areas within driving distance of the Hayride. Johnny’s highest charting single as a soloist, “Please Talk To My Heart”(Top 15), occurred while recording for United Artists in 1963. (Mathis also recorded several Rockabilly sides for D Records under the name of Les Cole & The Echoes. The most notable being “Bee-Bopping Daddy”.) He’s appeared on the Louisiana Hayride, Big D Jamboree, The Grand Ole Opry, The Wilburn Brothers Show and TNN’s Nashville Now to name a few. Mathis was a regular performer on the Louisiana Hayride through much of the 50′s. (His song “Let Me Go Back One More Time” was featured in the Louisiana Hayride documentary, Cradle Of The Stars, narrated by Hank Williams Jr.)
As a songwriter, Country Johnny Mathis had his songs recorded by George Jones (over 20 cuts), Tammy Wynette, Johnny Paycheck, Charlie Pride, Johnny Horton, Ray Price, Jimmy Dean, George Hamilton IV, Freddy Fender, Melba Montgomery, Webb Pierce, The Whites, Carl Smith, Bobby Helms, Elvis Costello and many, many others. Mathis has been credited with writing over 500 songs, several of which have been on gold albums, charted on the Country charts and garnered BMI airplay performance awards. “If You Don’t, Somebody Else Will” was recorded by several artists including George Jones & Tammy Wynnette on their 1976 ‘Golden Ring’ Album. The album is listed as one of the Top 200 Most Influential Albums in Country Music. There has been a revival of Mathis songs in recent years with cuts by Jim Lauderdale, Kenny and Amanda Smith Band, Brad Davis and the new releases of vintage recordings of artist like Charlie Pride, Johnny Paycheck, George Jones and others.
Mathis has had multiple songs recorded by many artists across several genres of music who have since become Hall of Fame inductees in their respective fields of music:
- Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees: Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, Charlie Pride, Tammy Wynette, Ray Price, Johnny Bond, Jimmy Dean, Porter Waggoner and George Jones. Some of his songs were published by Hall of Fame Inductee, Fred Rose. (As of 2013 Johnny has 10 of the 120 Hall of Fame Inductees directly associated with his songwriting. *This number is even higher if you factor in “Am I That Easy To Forget” which was sold by Mathis for $15 and recorded by 8 other Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees. Over 15% of Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees can be directly associated with Mathis’ songwriting talent.)
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees: Elvis Costello and Wanda Jackson
- Rockabilly Hall of Fame Inductees: Bobby Helms, Jimmy Lee Fautheree, Wanda Jackson and George Hamilton lV
- US Hispanic Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee: Freddy Fender
Mathis was also one of “those” songwriters in his Country Music days; the kind that others knew would sell a song outright or sell his writer’s share. He sold “Am I That Easy To Forget” for outright for $15 to which Mathis later said he spent the money buying a fifth of Vodka, playing pinball and staying at the YMCA that night. The song later became a Country standard and in BMI Million Performance category.
He sold his writer’s share of Jimmy and Johnny’s chart-topping, If You Don’t Somebody Else Will, in 1954 for $125 which later was recorded by at least 11 other major artists and also became a BMI award winning song. (The song still bares his name in writer credits.)
Please Talk To My Heart, another BMI award winning song was traded with the agreement that the balance that he owed the music store for his acoustic guitar would be paid off, later that night someone broke into his hotel room and stole the guitar.
There is story after story of songwriter shares being used to trade for radio promotion or some record deal or just have some immediate cash. For songs that Mathis retained his writer’s shares on, he wasn’t paid for decades on royalties; cuts by artists such as Charlie Pride, Johnny Paycheck, Elvis Costello, The Whites and others.
After spending 30 years living the lifestyle of the songs he wrote, Mathis had a life changing experience driving down a Texas road in the 1964. Thinking about how he needed to thank someone he was about to make a music deal with he started writing I’m Gonna Thank Jesus. This moment was a spiritual turning point for him and changed his life. On the heels of a record deal with United Artist and a Top 20 song, as well as a nomination for“New Male Vocalist In Country Music” by Billboard Magazine he abandoned his Country Music career for the most part and returned to his church roots from which he sprang and began to sing and evangelize in churches across the country.
He later met Jeannie McLain in a little church in Louisiana where he was holding revival services and they married and had 3 sons. Johnny spent most of his time during the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s writing and singing Gospel music and evangelizing across the country. He was a devoted father, passing along his love for music, faith and dedication, to his sons John Jr, Bill and James. Many times taking his young musicians to the local nursing homes to play music for the sick and elderly. A visit in 1980 from his old producer, Aubrey Mayhew, talked Mathis into moving to Nashville to write for Mayhew’s publishing company, Dream City Music. This stint lasted for a year but landed the Mathis permanently in Tennessee where he continued to write songs and make records until a massive stroke in 1999 which led to his passing in 2011.
Johnny had no regrets for his decisions in Country Music regarding missed opportunities or business decisions, he rarely spoke in detail about his accolades or anything he felt he may have accomplished in the music business but would often state in his concerts that if he’d received all the money he should have during those days he would’ve “killed my fool self”. Mathis was more outspoken about his love for writing songs (often stopping someone during the day to sing a new verse and chorus of something he had just written), his love for life and his strong feelings of faith. In a final tribute, many media outlets such as WSM, KWKH, television paid their final respects at his passing including a heart warming commentary from the host of the Mike Huckabee Radio Show, Mike Huckabee.
Country Johnny Mathis left a legacy in so many areas, from music to faith to family. He is missed but the celebration of his life and music live on through his family, friends and followers of his music.