Johnny Mathis: Life is a Song Worth Singing – The Complete Thom Bell Sessions

JohnnyMathis_LifeIsASongCompleteThomBellRomantic lead meets Philly legend

Throughout the ‘50s and well into the ‘60s, Johnny Mathis was the answer to the question “Who do you make out to? Sinatra or Mathis?” Mathis’ distinctive voice and long, vibrato-laced notes created a romantic mood that flourished especially well at album length. By the time rock shoved adult contemporary music off of the radio, Mathis had begun to expand his stylistic palette, while still remaining true to his romantic roots. This two-disc set compiles Mathis’ mid-70s  work with Philly soul legend Thom Bell, collecting two full albums (1973’s I’m Coming Home and 1977’s Mathis Is…) alongside eight bonus selections that include mono and stereo singles, unreleased instrumentals and collaborations released elsewhere as album tracks.

It’s not particularly surprising that Mathis fit easily into Bell’s string-laden arrangements, but as the band heats up with deeper bass and horns, Mathis breaks free of his comfort zone.Writing with lyricist Linda Creed for the 1973 release, Bell fashioned material that both catered to and challenged Mathis. Bell kept Mathis in the middle of his vocal range, exploring the singer’s ability to build emotion without relying on high notes. The soft brass of “I’m Coming Home” shines a light on Bell’s fondness for Burt Bacharach, and rose to the top of the Easy Listening chart. But Bell also pushed Mathis, inviting the staccato delivery of “Life is a Song Worth Singing” that adds attitude to the performance. The six minute album version includes terrific instrumental work from Philly International’s house band, MFSB, that was cut from the three-minute single.

In addition to the newly written material, I’m Coming Home includes covers of the Stylistics’ “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” and “I’m Stone in Love With You,” with fresh arrangements to suit Mathis and fit the album’s tone.  The latter won over the Soul Train dancers in a 1974 performance that also featured the Bell/Creed original “Foolish.” The first disc’s bonus tracks include the mono edit of “Life is a Song Worth Singing,” the stereo single of “I’m Coming Home,” and previously unreleased instrumental takes of “I’m Stone in Love With You” and “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do.” The latter pair shows off Bell’s deft touch as an arranger and producer, and the house band’s ability to flawlessly nail a song’s mood.

Mathis and Bell reunited in 1977 to record a second album at Seattle’s Kaye-Smith (later Heart’s Bad Animals) studio. Surprisingly, though waxed on the West Coast amid the rising tide of disco, the album picks up where their previous collaboration left off. Bell wrote many of the album’s originals with his nephew LeRoy, and combined Philly and West Coast studio aces and orchestral players to build a sound that’s remarkably free of disco’s tropes. Mathis luxuriates in the long notes of  “Lullaby of Love” and soaring strings of “Heaven Must Have Made You Just For Me.” Bell comes right back with the upbeat “Loving You-Losing You,” and his love of Bacharach-styled bounce is heard in “I’ll Make You Happy.”

Mathis Is… closes with a cover of the Spinners’ “Sweet Love of Mine,” whose faster tempo strengthens the song’s hopefulness. The second disc’s bonus tracks show that these albums weren’t Mathis’ first meeting with Bell’s material, nor his last. Mathis recorded the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow” in 1972 and “Break Up to Make Up” in 1973, and “You’re as Right as Rain” in 1975. He re-teamed with Bell in the studio for the 1991 Patti Austin duet “You Brought Me Love,” and cut a strong 2008 cover of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” with Yolanda Adams. Joe Marchese’s liner notes complement a 16-page booklet whose album cover reproductions will have you scrambling for a magnifying glass to read the credits. This is a great set for Mathis’ fans, as well as those who might enjoy a unique twist on the Philly soul sound. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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