It’s Not a Merry Christmas without Johnny Mathis
By Kristin Battestella
I don’t advocate the entire Johnny Mathis catalogue to the next generation. Outside of the timeless hits ‘Chances Are’, ‘Wonderful Wonderful’, and ‘It’s Not for Me to Say’ there’s isn’t much for today’s masses. No, in tonight’s review, I’m speaking to the moms, the old aunts, and the grandmothers of December yesteryear. You know you can’t visit their households during the holiday season without hearing Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis. If you’re a little younger like me, you might have the CD, but I’m sure older folks can close their eyes and see Johnny and his skiing get up on the 1958 vinyl sleeve cover. Yeah, you know that the Christmas kitschy I’m talking about!
Other artists have certainly done Winter Wonderland, but Johnny’s rendition is tough to beat. It’s fun, carefree, sing-along-able; yet holds enough weight for Mathis’ range and delivery. I’m not listening to the song right now, but the tune instantly comes to mind with Johnny’s hip stylings. Now it’s stuck in my frigging head and I can’t type all the beats and bubbly bits to match him!
No fifties Christmas album produced by Mitch Miller (Sing A Long with Mitch, anyone?) would be complete without The Christmas Song. Johnny Mathis comes close to the original Nat King Cole rendition in sentimental mood and holiday warmth. This slow brooding, melancholy tune is just the right pace and style for Johnny’s talent. Although it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, Sleigh Ride also gives us more definitive Mathis. I dare say this happening version-the shortest and fastest song here- is the most famous vocal version and only second to the Boston Pops original. Catchy Johnny captures all the traditions of Currier and Ives in this short and sweet secular staple.
Now that we’ve had our sleighing fun, it’s time to slow Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis for some winter blues. Where Elvis’ version has some sweet blues vocals, Johnny’s Blue Christmas is for all the folks who hate Christmas and think it’s the most depressing time of the year. If it’s slow brew wasn’t tear jerking enough, Mathis’ mellow I’ll be Home for Christmas will have you calling your grandma. The vocals and orchestration by Percy Faith are so sweet and nonchalant as they tug at your holiday heartstrings. Whether he’s billowing the big notes or almost speaking a soft word or two, Johnny knows how to get you.
Now, no Christmas album since 1942 is complete without White Christmas and Mathis’ debut holiday record here is no different. This slightly slower version keeps all the yuletide resonance in the perfect range for Johnny’s delivery. It’s bittersweet, but somehow marshmallow and full of vocal snowflakes. This one song can still make people smile as quickly as it brings a tear.
Like many of its compatriots of the time, Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis’ original record is split with an A side of secular tunes and a B side of traditional Christmas Carols. Outside of Luciano Pavarotti and Mario Lanza, not many men can hit the high notes in O Holy Night. Pop stars of the day like Andy Williams and Perry Como drop down the octaves, but not Johnny. He takes all the time and measures that this hefty carol needs for complete reverence. Though O Holy Night is the longest tune here, we get a complete rendition of What Child Is This in equally fine gospel delivery. Perhaps because of its association with Greensleeves, I always feel some medieval stylings here. In the midst of the plague and the wrongs of the Inquisition, Christ’s light prevailed!
Yes, we are listening to versions of carols from the 1950s; but just think, people in the 1850s were hearing joyful noise with the same tunes. In keeping with the
Old World yule, The First Noel strikes the perfect balance between Johnny’s higher notes and all the low octaves. Sometimes I just like his lone ‘Noel’ delivery, for it makes perfect sense that ‘Noel’ and ‘ ’ should rhyme when Mathis sings it! Thought not a Carol, Silver Bells lightens Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis just a bit with those good old memories of Christmas in the City. You know, before people trampled each other over the latest smartphone and where too busy with their earpieces to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other. Israel
I have to say, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear isn’t found on too many popular Christmas albums, and that’s a dang shame. Mathis’ lofty tune here gives this holiday hymn its due. From the solid lyrics and delivery, we’ve no doubt what the ‘it’ is that the angels feel the need to sing about. Of course, it’s no surprise that Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis concludes with Silent Night. Light the candles and sing it sweet and low with Johnny. Again, this tune captures the true meaning of Christmas. In the quiet, darkest hour of night, the light of miracles shines brightest. So what if December 25 may not be the true date of Christ’s birth. Roman, Germanic, Jewish, and Christian traditions are all celebrating the warmth, light, and joy of salvation from nature’s darkest hour. Hot damn, the fire of the human spirit prevails another year!
Fans of an old fashioned, traditional Christmas can’t go wrong with Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis. Even if you don’t like him or his pop music, almost every song here can carry a December memory for you and yours. Pick up the CD or dig up that kitschy vinyl as you untangled the Christmas lights this holiday season.