Johnny Mathis got up from the mah-jongg table where he was conducting an interview at his Los Angeles home to answer the telephone: “We’re discussing my career as a cantor,” he joked.
The 74-year-old Mathis — who has recorded more than 130 albums and cracked the Billboard charts over 60 times — is best known as the crooner of iconic backseat make-out ballads such as “Chances Are” and “It’s Not for Me to Say.”
Now he is also getting recognition for his surprising contribution to Jewish music: a soaring version of the Yom Kippur prayer “Kol Nidre.”
Recorded on his 1958 album “Good Night, Dear Lord,” the song was rediscovered by the New York–based Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation on a seven-inch disc that arrived in a battered box of donated albums some years ago.
Mathis’ rendition of “Kol Nidre” is featured in the new exhibition “Black Sabbath” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The singer also was celebrated at L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center on Aug. 19.
“Kol Nidre,” Idelsohn’s founders learned, was a European single culled from the album of religious songs, which included “Ave Maria,” the Hebrew-language poem “Eli, Eli” and the Yiddish favorite “Where Can I Go?”
“But it is Mathis’ ‘Kol Nidre’ which blew us away,” they wrote in the liner notes of the CD, “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations.”
Why did the African American Mathis, then 23 and at the zenith of his career, choose to record the Aramaic Jewish prayer so central to the Jewish Day of Atonement?
Mathis traces the endeavor to his childhood in the tolerant, multiracial Fillmore District of San Francisco, where his friends included Jewish buddies from the track team at Washington High School who occasionally took him to shul.
He also heard Jewish music courtesy of his music teacher Connie Cox — she took on the talented 13-year-old in exchange for his completing odd jobs around her house — who introduced him to the cantors-turned-opera singers Robert Merrill and Richard Tucker.
Mathis was discovered during a jam session at a Hyde Street club when he was 19, around the same time he enrolled at S.F. State University to become an English and physical education teacher. He gave up his chance to participate in Olympic trials as a high jumper to record for Columbia Records at age 20, with prominent American Jews helping to shape his career.
The young artist was “floundering,” in Mathis’ words, when he was summoned to the offices of Mitch Miller, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had become one of the most influential forces in American popular music.
“Mitch said, ‘I’ve heard what you do, and I don’t like it,’ ” Mathis recalled of that meeting — his memories flowing all the more since Miller died on Aug. 2 at age 99, the day before this interview. “Mitch said, ‘I like your voice, but I don’t like the way you’re singing, and I don’t like what you’re singing. … I’d like to record you, but I want you to sing what I want the way I want it.’ ”
In fact, Miller stood beside Mathis in the recording booth, tapping his shoulder to make sure he didn’t improvise. But even if Miller could be “very strong,” as Mathis puts it, he credits the producer for guiding him to the romantic ditties that would make him a superstar.
Mathis went on to record his first No. 1 hit, “Chances Are,” becoming one of the most prolific American singers of all time, selling more than 180 million albums worldwide and setting a number of precedents in the music industry.
His 1958 greatest-hits album pioneered that genre and spent almost a decade on the Billboard chart. Mathis’ 1982 album “Friends in Love” featured a title duet with Dionne Warwick that became his fourth Top 40 single hit in four decades.
More recently, Mathis has sung for Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, performed with major symphony orchestras, and next month will release a collection of country standards, “Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville,” a tribute to his father, who was born in Texas and taught the young Johnny to sing.
The spiritual music of “Good Night, Dear Lord” was meant as an ode to Mathis’ devout mother; he personally chose the black spirituals from songs he recalled from his childhood African Methodist Episcopal church. But he turned to the prominent bandleader Percy Faith — another son of Jewish immigrants — to advise him on the Jewish selections, and recorded the album with Faith’s orchestra.
“Kol Nidre” appealed to Mathis, in part, because of the opportunity to showcase the operatic side of his voice, rather than the honeyed tones for which he had become famous. “My interpretation of the song was a mixture of the Muslim call to worship and the [biblical] Jews wandering, lost, in the desert, when their faith was all they had,” he said.
“Recording it was very emotional,” he added. “I lost all of my inhibitions.”
When the Idelsohn Society approached him about his “Kol Nidre,” he said, “I was over the moon.” The album had sold only a moderate number of copies: “Every performer has a little gem, a little pearl they have done that nobody pays much attention to,” he explained. “And then one day, somebody does recognize it, which is so gratifying.”