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Johnny MathisJohnny Mathis recorded three Christmas records during his 50's and 60's prime - two for Columbia (the label for which he achieved his greatest successes) and one for Mercury. Then, he waxed three more for Columbia during the long denouement of his career, plus numerous reissues, repackages, and retrospectives. That's a lot of holiday music, and at least one of those albums - the very first, Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1958) - has been an enduring favorite among consumers ever since it's release, hitting the charts nearly every holiday season for 40 years running, from 1958 through 1999.

But frankly, but I've never found Merry Christmas or any of its myriad successors to be all that compelling. Inarguably, Johnny Mathis has a unique voice. Yet he suffers from an almost willful lack of soul. Ultimately, I find him boring. Perhaps that makes me less than an ideal judge of this much-beloved music, but Johnny doesn't offer his listeners a lot beyond his impeccable craft. The missing elements - things like passion, grit, emotion, humor - are the true heart of great music.

Still, there's no discounting the historical importance of these albums, nor can we deny the place they hold in the hearts of the public. For many, Johnny's rendition of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" tops even Nat King Cole's masterful interpretation, and Mathis' "Sleigh Ride" is perhaps the definitive vocal version of Leroy Anderson's immortal melody. At his best, on upbeat songs like "A Marshmallow World," Mathis exudes a sort of chirpy glee that perhaps explains why he has become so closely identified with Christmas season.

Johnny MathisJohnny Mathis was the last of the crooners, marketed as a romantic ballad singer just as teen-oriented rock 'n' roll was on the rise. Not surprisingly, his career focused more on the adult-oriented album market, and he barely brushed the singles charts with his Christmas music, scoring minor hits with "Little Drummer Boy" in 1963 and "Frosty The Snowman" in 2002. But, as mentioned above, Mathis has been a fixture on the albums charts every winter for a period spanning four decades - and counting! In and of itself, Merry Christmas (orchestrated by Percy Faith, by the way) charted most of those years, starting with a #3 performance on the pop charts the year of its release, followed by three Top 10 appearances during the next four years.

Johnny Mathis recorded for Columbia Records nearly his entire career. He briefly jumped ship, however, forming his own company, Global Records, distributed by Mercury. His debut for the label was his second holiday album, Sounds Of Christmas (Mercury, 1963). Arguably, Sounds Of Christmas is a better record than Merry Christmas, if only because it contains several songs outside the standard seasonal repertoire and apparently written for the project. These include the title song and "Have Reindeer, Will Travel" (both by Jerry Livingston and Paul Webster); Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's "The Secret Of Christmas"; and "Christmas Is A Feeling In The Heart" by Joe Darion and George Kleinsinger.

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Johnny MathisMathis returned to Columbia in 1967, and they reintroduced Sounds Of Christmas in 1972 as Christmas With Johnny Mathis, trimming two songs from its track listing. Meanwhile, his third holiday album, Give Me Your Love For Christmas (Columbia, 1969) had been a major success, hitting #1 on Billboard's Christmas album chart and eventually selling a million copies. In 1970, he waxed a non-LP single, "Sign Of The Dove" b/w "Christmas Is" (cowritten by Percy Faith), that flopped - and would become pretty scare until many years later.

A long dry (warm?) spell followed, broken only by 1984's Johnny Mathis For Christmas, which collected tracks from his previous two albums, and a 1980 single with Gladys Knight that was later included on her album, That Special Time of Year (1982). Ultimately, the indefatigable Mathis returned with his fourth holiday album, Christmas Eve With Johnny Mathis in 1986, eventually followed by The Christmas Album (2002) and Sending You A Little Christmas (2013), which includes a duet with Billy Joel.

Over the years, Johnny Mathis' music - never exactly avant garde - grew ever more conservative, less interesting. But, even if you disagree with me about the quality of his work - and clearly, many of you do - that's a lot of Christmas music to contend with. Until the latter-day advent of The Complete Christmas Collection (more on that later), the logical solution presented itself with The Christmas Music Of Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection (1993). This straightforward survey of Mathis' first four Christmas albums is smartly selected (ostensibly by Johnny himself) and logically programmed. At 14 tracks, it's too brief, but I recommend it by a slim margin over original albums like Merry Christmas, especially since Sounds Of Christmas has never been reissued in its original format.

Johnny MathisCompare Personal Collection, for instance, to Gold: 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration (2006), a companion to Johnny's 50th Anniversary Celebration released earlier that same year. A 50th anniversary is an auspicious occasion, right? You'd think so, but both anniversary albums run fewer than 20 tracks, taking an utterly cursory glance at Mathis' lengthy career. The Christmas Celebration CD, in fact, includes just 15 songs - inexcusable given the nature of the medium and the fact that it has to survey more material. Consequently, it all but ignores his superior 1963 and 1969 albums. Even worse, it includes a duet with the dreaded Mannheim Steamroller on "O Tannenbaum." Yikes!

Which brings us back to The Christmas Music Of Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection. It, too, was a companion piece - this time to a vastly superior boxed set released the following year. So, I recommend seeking out these earlier discs - the former because it focuses on Mathis' strongest Christmas music, the latter because it affords the listener the broad perspective Johnny Mathis' music deserves - even if it's not my particular cup of tea.

Having said that, long after I drew these conclusions, Real Gone Music released The Complete Christmas Collection 1958-2010 (2015), which compiled the complete contents of five Johnny Mathis Christmas albums (all but the last one) plus non-LP singles, album tracks, collaborations, and more. Exhaustive? Almost. Exhausting? Depends on your perspective. I picked it up for its historical import and impressive, scholarly approach to a type of music usually dismissed as trifle. Kudos for that. But, do I want to listen to over four hours of Johnny Mathis Christmas music? If you've read this far, you know the answer. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (1958)
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1969)
  • A Marshmallow World (1963)
  • Sleigh Ride (1958)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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