This Wednesday evening at the the Music Center at Strathmore, the legendary singer Johnny Mathis will be performing in concert to yet another sold out house. He has been doing that for 60 years now. Longevity in the music business is a rare thing so you could say Johnny Mathis is one the longest running and successful singers in the world. What is all the more rare is the longevity of Mr. Mathis’ rhythm section that follow him all over the world.
Conductor/pianist John Scott Lavender (you can call him Scott) has been leading Johnny Mathis’ orchestra for 25 years but as you will read, there is way more too his job than what you see onstage. Before coming to work with Johnny Mathis he worked with Glen Yarborough and has conducted many of the great symphony orchestras in the country including our very own National Symphony and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras.
Percussionist Joe Lizama has been part of the Mathis team for an astonishing 35 years. Think about that for a second. Imagine going to work and playing for one of the true legends of music for that long. That is what’s known as a dream gig.
Bassist Rick Shaw (yep, real name) has been playing off and on for Johnny Mathis since 1987. Many acts these days opt to put the bass parts on keyboard and hope the audience doesn’t notice, but when there is live bass it really adds the bottom that is needed. Lucky for us and Rick Shaw, Johnny Mathis still does things the old fashioned way. He always has a 25 piece orchestra backing him, which just doesn’t happen anymore on the road. When not playing for Johnny Mathis, Rick freelances as a bass player in Los Angeles. You might have heard his work on TV shows like JAG, Enterprise, and The Simpsons.
I also need to mention that guitarist/production manager Gil Reigers has been with Johnny Mathis for a staggering 46 years. You most likely have seen him up front with Mr. Mathis performing “The Twelfth of Never” and “99 Miles From L.A.” Although Mr. Reigers was not available for this interview due to scheduling, I didn’t want to leave him out because of the enormous contributions he makes to the Mathis organization on and off stage.
If you are lucky enough to have tickets to see and hear Johnny Mathis at Strathmore this Wednesday, consider the history onstage as you listen to the great music. No matter what other gigs these musicians have when not working with Johnny Mathis, it is this particular job that has kept all these gentleman happily employed for many years. With the busy tour schedule Scott, Joe and Rick are still keeping, I want to thank all of them for taking time out to do this interview and for bringing “A Certain Smile” to all of us with their artistry for all this time.
All of you have been with Johnny Mathis for many, many years which is a rarity in the music business. When you first started working for Johnny Mathis did you think you would still be with him all these years later?
Scott- My wife was 6 months pregnant with my daughter when I started so we thought it would be difficult for me to be gone as much as we used to be but that we’d give a try for a year and see what happened. So no, not 25 years!
Joe- I started with Johnny Mathis just after his 25th Anniversary in show business. I had no idea that I would be with him for nearly 35 years. As to why I am still with him these years later, part of that is due to John’s good health, popularity and longevity in the business. Part of that is due to John’s loyalty to his employees. Part of that is due to the fact that John continues to be a good singer, the music is good, the company, and Rojon Productions Inc is basically managed well. I work with good musicians in the rhythm section. We work with good musicians across the country and out of the country. The core Rojon employees are nice folks to work with and we get along well. Everyone is professional and does their job, not matter how difficult the circumstances. I tend to stay with things a long time. I drove the same car for 25 years. In this business there are not very many jobs like this that endure for so long. There has been no reason to leave.
Rick- No. With some explanation: When I started, I appreciated the good work and musical conditions of the gig but I wanted to play for other performers. Now, decades later, I find that John’s gig is one of the few that is loyal to its members. We have a great group of 4 musicians that travel with John (Scott, Gil, Joe, and me). Not only do we work well together but we’re friends. That is RARE to find! Additionally the office staff (Robert, Amy, and Mark) are always supportive and great to work with as well.
How did each of you get hired and what do you remember about your first concert playing with Johnny Mathis?
Scott- I got a call from a friend I played softball with who suggested I should call the Mathis office and get an audition time from Gil. I went in and played through a few arrangements with the guys (all of whom are still on the gig!) then we talked for awhile. I guess they thought they could get along OK with me, which is a big deal when you’re spending a lot of time with someone. I’m fortunate to really like all the people I work with.
Joe- I was hired at a point in time when it was determined that there would be a change made in the drum position for Johnny Mathis. I received a phone call from John’s conductor, Jim Ganduglia, offering me the job. It turns out that I had a long standing connection to Johnny Mathis through Jim Ganduglia who had been John’s drummer prior to becoming his conductor. Jim had heard me play drums when I was in college and playing in the jazz band at Fresno State. I was invited for a drum set lesson with Jim Ganduglia at his parents’ home in Fresno. During college I was also hired as the percussionist for a five-day Johnny Mathis California tour while Vic Vanacore was the conductor. Separate from that I was a winner in the Percussive Arts Society Western States Percussion Festival for which friends of Jim Ganduglia happened to be among the judges. Before graduating from college ,I was hired as a percussionist by the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I played in that orchestra for two years and was exposed to Brazilian music first hand. Johnny Mathis loves to sing Brazilian music. After college, I was touring with a band out of Las Vegas when I again crossed paths with Johnny Mathis and Jim Ganduglia in Birmingham, Alabama where we both happened to be performing. I was with that band out of Las Vegas for two years when I received the phone call from Jim Ganduglia offering me a job.
My first concert as the drummer with Johnny Mathis was just outside of Baltimore, MD at the Merriweather Post Pavillion. I had just closed a show not far away at the Hayloft Dinner Theater in Manassas, VA with a group with whom I had been traveling with for the past two years. I was accustomed to playing to an audience of a couple hundred people. With Johnny Mathis we were playing to a couple thousand or more at the Merriweather Post Pavillion. I remember that I was so excited during that first concert I was shaking like someone shivering from the cold. Nobody else knew it and I never talked about it, but I could feel it as we were playing the concert. I was that excited and a little nervous. It is a unique experience to sit right in the middle of a live professional orchestra playing wonderful arrangements behind an iconic singer in front of a crowd of two thousand or more people. What a great sound and a tremendous experience.
Rick- I auditioned in 1987 and won the gig. I don’t remember how many other bass players auditioned. 5-9? I was excited because I’d been working with Maynard Ferguson at the time and, while I loved Maynard, the Mathis gig was going to be a big step up. I think my first gig was a week-long run at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. I remember that run as my first gig. I was new to an established band so I was trying to find my footing in the group. The guys were great about having me there. As far as John, I was impressed with his musical sensibilities. He might laugh to hear me say that (he’s not a formally educated musician) but he understands that his performance of a song, with all its subtleties, has a great impact on the audience. He knows how to deliver a song!
Scott- Johnny Mathis introduces you in concert as the one in charge of us all. We see you onstage playing piano and conducting the orchestra, so can you please talk about what the offstage part of your job entails?
Helping John prepare in any way I can for upcoming performances, including rehearsing and arranging new songs, warm-ups before the show. I also prepare the orchestra the afternoon of performances with plenty of help from my colleagues: musically that’s Joe, Rick and Gil and also the invaluable assistance of our technical staff, Lighting Designer Stacey Westbrook and Sound Engineer Eric Hatcher.
Joe- Johnny Mathis’s fans are devoted and follow him all over the country and I imagine the world. Is there a particular fan story that sticks out for you in the many years you have played for Johnny Mathis?
Yes. I generally do not have an opportunity to get to know the fans very well because I am often the least visible musician on stage and I don’t generally have an opportunity to interact with the fans. There is a couple from the Atlanta area. They attended a Johnny Mathis concert a few decades ago. They have a favorite song, “Why Did I Choose You.” At some point in their marriage they decided that they wouldn’t just wait for the few times that John came to sing in the Atlanta area, they would travel beyond Atlanta to hear John whenever they could. They could afford to travel and wanted to take advantage of those opportunities to see and hear John live while they still could. I am certain that this story is not unique among Johnny Mathis fans. We often see several of the same faces in the audience.
Rick- Of all the places in the world you’ve played with Johnny Mathis, is there a particular favorite?
Our April 2015 concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall in LA. The LA Phil is an incredible orchestra and Disney Hall is one of the premier concert halls in the US. John sang beautifully and the sound was so lush! It was an anachronism; I felt like we were in the late 1950s recording his hits for the first time! This was also the first time in ages that John sang in Los Angeles. The audience loved every second.
2nd favorite was February 2015 at Clive Davis’ Pre-Grammy party. John was singing in a great lineup of stars with nothing but the music elite in the audience. He walked on stage and the audience rose in a standing ovation. I remember Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift being two of the first on their feet! John went on to sing four of his hits and sounding some of his best ever. (Notably, Ricky Minor was the music director for the gig and had all the musicians and singers prepared to perform John’s music flawlessly.)
When not performing with Johnny Mathis, where else do you perform or teach etc?
Scott- I live in the small town in Ohio where I grew up so I play in a couple of small bands for fun with guys I’ve known and been in rock bands with for 50 years when I can, which is huge fun. I’m also an associate professor at Bowling Green State University and teach Conducting, Jazz Piano, Jazz Arranging and do some ensemble coaching.
Joe- I currently teach percussion at Fresno City College where I conduct the percussion ensemble, give private lessons to the percussion majors and sometimes substitute for my colleagues. I also instruct a children’s percussion group in Fresno, grades 2 through 6. While with Johnny Mathis I have also taught at California State University Fresno as well as in the Fresno, Clovis and Hanford school districts.
When not performing with Johnny Mathis I perform around Fresno and Clovis with a number of different groups. I play vibraphone with a big band, drum set with a different big band, timbales with a salsa band, drum set with a Dixieland band, timpani and percussion in a community concert band, drums in a soul/funk/Top 40 band, percussion with a six-piece acoustic guitar/vocal group and drums with a number of jazz combos.
Rick- I teach one day a week at Riverside Community College. There I have applied bass students (acoustic and electric basses) and teach a Business of Music class. I also freelance in Los Angeles as a bass player. So I’ll play in the orchestra for TV shows (The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc.) or movies (Ted, Up In The Air, others), or theme park music for Disney. I also played in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band for 14 years. I also do Jazz clinics for High Schools and colleges.
Do any of you get recognized when walking down the street by a fan or fans of Johnny Mathis?
Scott- Yes, in cities where we’re performing it happens frequently.
Joe- I occasionally will get recognized immediately following a Johnny Mathis concert when out in public with the rest of the guys who work for John. Other than that, rarely do I get recognized when walking down the street.
Rick- If it’s some of the regular fans, yes. Otherwise occasionally. More usual is when we’re hanging out somewhere after the concert and people who were in the audience that night will come by and say hi. They want to express how wonderful it was; how many wonderful memories they have of John’s music. For many people it’s not just the music but the associated life experiences they have with the music. Being married to one of John’s songs, family Christmas with John’s music playing, (for the older generation) and for the younger folks, getting romantic while listening to Johnny’s music. HA!!
Can you please choose your favorite Johnny Mathis song and explain your choice?
Scott- I can’t possibly choose just one. Every night there’s something about the way he performs one or two or several of the songs that makes me think, “That’s my favorite.” Then he sings something else that’s makes me think the same thing. I guess my favorite song is the one he’s singing right at the moment.
Joe- This is more difficult. There are those songs that I like because the drum parts are more involved and interesting and I have done more to develop things musically. The song “Brazil” comes to mind. I probably drew more upon my experiences in Brazil in order to come up with what I play on that song.
I really like the West Side Story medley because I really like that music by Leonard Bernstein. That music covers so many emotions and provides great moments for John.
My favorite video performance of John was his performance on the tonight show when he sang “Pieces of Dreams.” You would be hard pressed to find a better performance of that song. That was before I was with him.
I like “My Foolish Heart,” which we do in a Bossa Nova style because I actually visualize places in Rio de Janeiro during that song. I imagine that I am playing on the soundtrack for a movie about Brazil.
Rick- Recently one of the East Coast musicians we use sent me a blog article on the making of “Misty.” After reading about it and listening to the audio clips, I’d have to say Misty is my favorite. The original performance by John and the musicians is gorgeous. Also we play it every concert and he still makes the song sound new and alive each time!
After 60 years of performing, why do you think Johnny Mathis still sells out wherever he performs?
Scott- He’s absolutely sincere and dedicated to giving as beautiful a rendering of every song as possible. I believe he’s able communicate in every performance that he’s discovering and sharing the song with the audience for the very first time. I see him constantly work to perfect and give his best to every note of every song he sings and I think that communicates itself to people. It’s something you cannot fake and, as a result, it’s incredibly rare.
Joe- People come to hear good music performed by a great singer. They are reminded of the good memories that they had when they first heard John’s songs. Music has that power to take you right back to where you were and what you were doing when you first heard a certain song. The texture and setting of a full orchestra, great arrangements and a good singer is not something that one gets to hear live very often. I am amazed that John continues to sing as well and sound as good as he does after 60 years. I would come just to hear that. He is the singer that the singers come to hear. He has been the soundtrack for many people’s lives. There are few people who have done it so well for so long and are still performing at a high level.
Rick- Because he’s the only one making music this way! John’s music is romantic music. We’re seeing younger people come to the concerts and love the experience because no one else sings like John or has a 25-piece orchestra backing an artist. Who else is singing romantic music with an orchestra accompanying him? Who else just sings the songs (He speaks only 2 or 3 times during the show)? People love the show because the concert feels intimate even if when are 2,500 people other in the theater – It seems like John is singing to only a few friends.