I do enjoy myself some Johnny Mathis every now and again – but then, who wouldn’t? The man has got some of the silkiest vocals to come from an era of popular music wherein it would be completely necessary for one to have stellar vocals. He is rivaled by the likes of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole for his ability to croon out practically any typical love song and make each and every single line sound like the most sumptuous romantic poetry. It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but giving just one listen to “It’s Not For Me to Say” and “Chances Are” would quickly convert any music cynic into a fan, or at least an admirer. The guy is an absolute legend, and his influence spreads across numerous spheres of popular music to come.
Johnny Mathis is one that needs little to no introduction, so I won’t waste anyone’s time. What I will say is that he is primarily a singer of romantic ballads, many of his particular renditions becoming jazz standards of their own. His first single came with the immediately successful “Wonderful! Wonderful!” in late 1956, and his prominence only bloomed from there. By 1960, he was one of the most popular jazz vocalists in the world (he would also go on to become the third biggest selling artist of the 20th century period). At this point his career had taken on the trajectory that many such vocalists tend to undergo: re-recording standards and popular songs from movies, musicals, and other areas of interest. In this instance, Mathis released as a single his version of the love song from the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim musical West Side Story. It’s certainly nothing unusual, having already been performed and recorded by many before him, so this was the logical next step for the singer at the peak of his career.
My initial complaint about Mathis’ cover of the song involves the lack of context needed for the song to reach its full potential. “Maria” comes at the point in the play when the romantic leads are just starting to swim around their requited feelings of love for one another; moreover, the simplistic, naive nature of the lyrics and constant repetition of the name “Maria” ties in perfectly with the leads being two teenagers perfectly capable of rash decisions to the benefit of no one but themselves. I initially assumed it awkward that Mathis – definitely not a teen here – would be the one speaking this words… but it grew on me. When he sings “Maria, the most beautiful sound I ever heard”, it really does sound like he means it. It’s just that special kind of charm Mathis brings to all of his performances that does the trick, this one being no exception.
It’s also interesting how the arrangement of this track detaches the song’s stage origins away from the general tone and feel of the final product. While recordings from other artists definitely retain the feeling of this being from a musical, this particular rendition just sounds like yet another stellar Mathis record. If one didn’t know that this song were from West Side Story, they wouldn’t be any the wiser. Despite being a cover, this fits seamlessly with the rest of Mathis’ repertoire, complete with the weeping violins and backing Spanish rhythms to create this into its own kind of sonic paradise. I can go on and on about my appreciate for truly good cover songs, but I think one of the most important aspects of an awesome cover song comes from the artist’s ability to make it their own, while also paying just the right amount of respect to its source material. He does exactly this, and just nails it all right in with the final “Maria…”, held for several ethereal beats like some kind of angel not from this world. God, I just love Johnny Mathis so much.