April 1st, 2015

JohnnyMathisLife

Title: Life Is a Song Worth Singing: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions

Artist: Johnny Mathis

Label: Real Gone Music

Format: CD

Release date: March 10, 2015

 

The six-decades-long career of pop crooner Johnny Mathis, who will turn 80 later this year, has been celebrated in a spate of reissues lately, including this new 2-CD set from Real Gone Music. Life Is a Song Worth Singing pulls together the albums he recorded for Columbia under producer-songwriter-arranger-conductor Thom Bell, architect of the Philly soul sound. They include I’m Coming Home (1973) and Mathis Is. . . (1977); both are featured in their entirety, with numerous bonus tracks.

Unlike many of Mathis’ previous albums where he covered popular songs, I’m Coming Home presented new, original works composed primarily by Bell and Linda Creed. His highest charting single from this album, “Life Is a Song Worth Singing,” employs lush orchestrations and one will readily note the cinematic references: a bit of Ennio Morricone in the intro and a large dash of (somewhat homogenized) Shaft. The two covers on the album include “I’m Stone In Love With You” and “Stop Look and Listen to Your Heart,” both previously released in iconic performances by the Stylistics.

The second album, Mathis Is. . ., released here for the first time on CD, primarily features songs penned by Thom in partnership with his nephew, Leroy Bell. Recorded in Seattle and L.A.,  the session musicians included “Philly vets and West Coast pros, boasting Bob Babbitt, Tony Bell, Gary Coleman, Jack Faith, Bobbye Hall, Don Renaldo, Lee Ritenour, Andrew Smith and the uncredited Bobby Eli.” The ballad “Loving You-Losing You” is one of the highlights, though the soulful Phyllis Hyman version released the same year is typically regarded as the definitive version. Bonus tracks on Disc Two include “five more silky Mathis renditions of Bell classics recorded between 1972 and 2008, including “Betcha by Golly Wow” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” thus rounding out the Mathis-Bell collaboration.

According to the liner notes by Joe Marchese, these sessions were an attempt by Mathis to reach younger R&B listeners, rather than the predominantly white audience that flocked to his live performances. But though Mathis had very effectively crossed over into pop, it’s evident when listening to these sanitized performances why the reserve crossover was just a pipe dream for the singer, who was nearly 40-years-old at the time. In an era dominated by Black Power, Blaxploitation soundtracks, and searing soul, his chart success was mostly relegated to the Easy Listening category. Still, one must not discount Mathis, who remains one of the most successful recording artists of the 20th century.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Review Genre(s): Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk


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