John “Johnny” Royce Mathis, singer, was born in Gilmer, Texas on September 30, 1935, the fourth of seven children born to Clem, a chauffeur and handyman, and Mildred, a maid. The Mathis family moved to San Francisco, Californias Fillmore District when Mathis was a young child. When Clem Mathis, who had worked for a time in vaudeville, recognized his sons musical talent, the family scraped together $25, bought a piano and began teaching him songs and routines. Soon afterwards young Mathis started performing in church and school shows.
At the age of thirteen Mathis began taking lessons with Connie Cox, a San Francisco music teacher, paying for his training by working in the Cox home. Mathis studied with Cox for the next six years, receiving voice training in classical music including opera.
Mathis was also a star basketball player, high jumper, and track and field athlete at George Washington High School in San Francisco. In 1954 he enrolled at San Francisco State University on an athletic scholarship with the intention of becoming an English and physical education instructor. While there he broke the University of San Francisco and later basketball great Bill Russells high jump record.
Mathis also often took part in San Franciscos famous Black Hawk nightclub jam sessions with a jazz sextet. In 1955 club co-owner Helen Noga noticed his singing talent at one of these sessions and began scheduling him for performances around San Francisco nightclubs. At one of these performances Mathis was offered a recording contract with Columbia Records. On his fathers advice Mathis decided to pursue a musical career rather than compete in the Olympic tryouts that year. In 1956 he recorded his first jazz album, Johnny Mathis: a New Sound in Popular Song, which failed to impress the critics.
Fame, however, quickly came the following year. Columbia Records Vice President Mitch Miller then persuaded Mathis to focus on romantic jazz ballads. In late 1956 he recorded his first hit, “Wonderful! Wonderful!” which sold