Johnny Mathis – Complete Christmas Collection (review)

Johnny Mathis – The Complete Christmas Collection 1958-2010 (Real Gone / Sony) review

More legendary holiday tunes than you can shake a candy cane at

No other artist is more closely associated with Christmas music than legendary vocalist Johnny Mathis. For millions of people worldwide, Mathis is as much a part of tradition as baking cookies and decorating the tree. Real Gone Music has just issued the ultimate treat for fans – for the first time, all five of Mathis’ classic holiday albums are brought together in one collection, augmented by the inclusion of singles and one-off collaborations.

The set is bookended by two versions of “Ave Maria” which Mathis cut for an album called Good Night Dear Lord, that predated his first holiday-themed album by about six months. Then came Merry Christmas in 1958, still today considered one of the finest holiday albums of all-time. The reason? Mathis imparts a wide-eyed innocence to these recordings that is simply contagious. Add to it Percy Faith, who envelopes Mathis’ beautiful voice with lush strings, and you’ve got the perfect Christmas record. Few artists could touch Nat “King” Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song,” yet Mathis adds a sincerity that rivals even the original. Faith’s plucking strings add an anticipatory tone to his classic rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” while “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is one of many great ballads on the record. Merry Christmas is the benchmark by which all other Christmas albums are measured.

Four songs are included from a 1961 session that yielded a holiday single, the lush “Christmas Eve,” and a few others that weren’t released at the time. Then, in 1963, Mathis would leave Columbia for a stint with Mercury Records, and his first release was the Sounds of Christmas. He may have changed labels, but the recipe is the same: back Mathis with a pro orchestra and let him do his magic. Standouts here include the majestic “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a surprisingly slow reading of “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” and a spine-chilling “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Mathis would return to Columbia and cut his third holiday record, Give Me Your Love For Christmas in 1969. The title cut is a gorgeous ballad, while “Calypso Noel” adds a unexpected twist, plus he turns “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” into a cozy ballad. Mathis would record a series of holiday singles throughout the Seventies, the best being a teaming with Gladys Knight & the Pips for a stirring reading of “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Disc three opens with tracks from Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis from 1986, his fourth Yuletide offering. Ray Ellis conducts the buoyant “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and a gently funky “Jingle Bells,” while Henry Mancini directs the stately “Every Christmas Eve / Giving (Santa’s Theme).” Completists will delight in the inclusion of Mathis’ teaming with Mannheim Steamroller on “O Tannenbaum.”

In 2002, Mathis would release his fifth holiday long player, simply titled The Christmas Album. While his voice had deepened some, the results were still the same. There is just not another artist that could deliver child-like optimism to a track like “A Christmas Love Song,” and his version of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” really swings. Near the end of the collection, a surprise duet with Bette Midler combines two classics – “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” with playfully fun results.

Five Christmas albums might seem like overkill, but not in the hands of Johnny Mathis. He takes his title of “The King of Christmas” very seriously, and has always delivered the goods. With three solid discs of favorites, let The Complete Christmas Collection be the soundtrack to your next holiday gathering. —Tony Peters