Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage.com
Why Did Johnny Mathis Cover Adele & Keith Urban? | "Required Listening" Podcast
What do you get when you pair an eclectic collection of contemporary pop hits with one of the most successful song interpreters of all time? And then add one of music's most decorated producers and an industry executive with a golden ear?
You get Johnny Mathis' latest album, 2017's Sings The Great New American Songbook, which features covers of songs by Adele, Pharrell Williams, Leonard Cohen, Whitney Houston, and Keith Urban, and big assists from producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and esteemed record executive Clive Davis.
On the latest episode of "Required Listening," the new music podcast by HowStuffWorks and the GRAMMY Museum in partnership with the Recording Academy, host Scott Goldman uncovers the LP's complete story with Mathis, Babyface and Davis, including topics such as the song choices, production decisions and how the collaboration took shape.
"It was a joy to work that hard and to get the results." — Johnny Mathis
Sings The Great New American Songbook represents a fresh take on a covers album in linking the 82-year-old Mathis with a slew of modern-day pop smashes. Among the LP's cuts are Adele's "Hello," Williams' "Happy," Urban's "Blue Ain't Your Color," Cohen's "Hallelujah," and Houston's "Run To You." Getting a crack at putting his own spin on these contemporary songs was a unique challenge for Mathis, who received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
"You want me to sing that song?" joked Mathis, when asked his reaction to the songs Babyface and Davis put forth for him to interpret. "[There was a] revelation [with] these songs — they're new to me.'"
Mathis felt a positive synergy with the album's producer, 11-time GRAMMY winner Babyface, who has stewarded hits for artists from Houston, TLC and Boyz II Men to Mary J. Blige, Ariana Grande and Toni Braxton, in addition to his own impressive solo career.
"We did a lot of takes because he wanted certain qualities that he heard that sounded like Johnny Mathis," said Mathis. "Sometimes I'd go into the studio and your voice isn't quite what it should be … and you don't sound like Johnny Mathis. [Babyface] was wonderful. I would sing something and I thought, 'I can't do it any better.' And he'd say, "I know you can't but you can sing it differently.'
"The first moment that Johnny started singing, we were just like, 'That's Johnny Mathis,'" added Babyface. "It was the same beautiful voice I grew up listening to."
Davis described Mathis as being in "the top of the pantheon of all-time artists" alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The record executive expressed his excitement for every song on the project, while drawing parallels to his past successes such as The Bodyguard soundtrack and Santana's Supernatural.
"Every song in this album is a wonderful song reinterpreted through the work of Kenny and Johnny," said Davis. "It's a refreshing, creative traditional pop album that has respect for new material that can grow into standards."
"It was a joy to work that hard and to get the results," added Mathis. "Sometimes you work hard and you don't get the results. But this time we did."
Learn all about how the trio got those results on the podcast's latest episode. And be sure to tune in for future "Required Listening" episodes with special guests such as Sean "Diddy" Combs and Lindsey Buckingham and Christie McVie of Fleetwood Mac, among others.