This copy had all the Tubey Magical richness of the best coupled with the hardest thing to find on an old Columbia record: top end extension. Natural vocal reproduction is the sine qua non of a Johnny Mathis album – this pressing showed us just how good Columbia was back in 1959.
This early pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern pressings cannot BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing any sign of coming back.
Having done this for so long, we understand and appreciate that rich, full, solid, Tubey Magical sound is key to the presentation of this primarily vocal music. We rate these qualities higher than others we might be listening for (e.g., bass definition, soundstage, depth, etc.). The music is not so much about the details in the recording, but rather in trying to recreate a solid, palpable, real person singing live in your listening room. The best copies have an uncanny way of doing just that.
If you exclusively play modern repressings of older recordings (this one is now 44 years old), I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but less than one out of 100 new records do, if our experience with the hundreds we’ve played can serve as a guide.
What to Listen For (WTLF)
Copies with rich lower mids did the best in our shootout, assuming they weren’t veiled or smeary of course. So many things can go wrong on a record! We know, we’ve heard them all.
Top end extension is critical to the sound of the best copies. Lots of old records (and new ones) have no real top end; consequently the studio or stage will be missing much of its natural ambience and space, and instruments will lack their full complement of harmonic information.
Tube smear is common to pressings from and any era and this is no exception. The copies that tend to do the best in a shootout will have the least (or none), yet are full-bodied, tubey and rich.
Testing with/for Sibilance
All copies have sibilance, some more than others. The best copies have the least and make it sound much less objectionable.
We’ve known for decades how good a test sibilance is for tables, cartridges and arms. Sibilance is a bitch. The best pressings, with the most extension up top and the least amount of aggressive grit and grain mixed in with the music, played using the highest quality, most carefully dialed-in front ends, will keep sibilance to an acceptable minimum.
VTA, tracking weight, azimuth and anti-skate adjustments are critical to reducing the amount and the quality of the spit in your records.
We discuss the sibilance problems of MoFi records all the time. Have you ever read Word One about this problem elsewhere? Me neither. Audiophiles, and, shamefully, the so-called expert audiophile reviewers who should know better just seem to put up with these problems. Or ignore them, or — even worse — simply fail to recognize them at all.
Play around with your table set-up for a few hours and you will no doubt be able to reduce the severity of the sibilance on your favorite test and demo discs. Your other records will thank you for it too.
Especially your Beatles records. Many Beatles pressings are spitty, and the MoFi Beatles pressings are REALLY spitty. Of course MoFi fans never seem to notice this fact. A large collection of MoFi pressings and an owner with critical listening skills are rarely found together. You either have one or the other.
If you don’t like at least some reverb on your vocals, Mathis’s albums are probably not for you. The standard recording approach for Male Vocals in the ’50s and ’60s was to add reverb to them. Sometimes it sounds right and sometimes it’s too much. For “too much” play some of Nat King Cole’s records from the era to hear what I mean. Try “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” from 1963 if you don’t know where to start. Tony Bennett’s records have plenty of reverb as well.
Like any processing of the sound — compression, limiting, reverb, EQ, etc. — it can be used with taste and discretion and make the recording better, or it can be overdone and practically ruin everything. For our part we think Johnny Mathis’s recordings use reverb tastefully and correctly for the most part.
Hello, Young Lovers
A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening
A Ride On A Rainbow
More Than You Know
Something I Dreamed Last Night
Stranger In Paradise
Moonlight Becomes You
They Say It’s Wonderful
I’ll Be Easy To Find
Heavenly is Johnny Mathis’ most successful regular album release, exceeded in his catalog only by the compilation Johnny’s Greatest Hits and the seasonal Merry Christmas collection.
It’s not hard to understand why; this record is the epitome of Mathis’ approach to music. Standards like “More Than You Know” and “Moonlight Becomes You” are joined by show tunes like “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Stranger in Paradise” and a few more recent titles, such as the Burt Bacharach-composed title song and “That’s All.”
The tempos are slow, the strings swell, and Mathis’ vulnerable tenor, dripping with tender emotion yet never missing a beat, soars and swoops over all. The best track, a revelation when it appeared on this album, is “Misty,” a treatment of Erroll Garner’s jazz piano classic with a newly added lyric by Johnny Burke. Few could have carried off that lyric (go ahead, try and think of another male singer of the ’50s who could handle it), but it was perfect for Mathis, and the track was spun off for a single that became his biggest hit in two years and remains one of his signature songs.
Though still fairly early in his career, Mathis had done a lot of recording; Heavenly was actually his tenth album release in less than three years (counting two hits collections and the Christmas album). As a result, he was a recording veteran while still being fresh enough to give his performances real feeling.
It all came together on Heavenly, Mathis’ longest running number one album which spent more than five-and-a-half years in the charts.
In 1963 Mathis joined Mercury and stayed with the label for three years during which he released eleven (!) albums.
We played quite a number of them and never heard a good one. Our advice: steer clear.
November 9, 1959
5 weeks mono
With the incredible success of Johnny’s Greatest Hits, Johnny Mathis became one of the premier recording artists in the country. His follow-up albums, Swing Softly, Open Fire, Two Guitars, and More Johnny’s Greatest Hits, all made the top 10, but it would take Heavenly to put Mathis back on top.
For this album—Mathis’s first recordings with arranger Glenn Osser—the crooner turned to a mix of show tunes, standards, and contemporary ballads. Many of the song selections were chosen because they had been performed by Mathis’s heroes. “I was influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole,” he says. “I would listen to their recordings and then go in and sing the same songs.” Such was the case with “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening,” a tune performed by Fitzgerald and included in the film Higher and Higher, featuring a young Frank Sinatra.
“A Ride on a Rainbow” was from the NBC-TV show Ruggles of Red Gap. “I heard Judy Holiday, who performed it in the Broadway production, sing it.
And that was it for me,” says Mathis. “I fell in love with her. She was just a fabulous actress. I was a kid and I was very impressionable. Any time I heard anyone sing anything really well, I was influenced by the performance. Then I found out there was a beautiful song there. That’s one of my favorite songs of all time.”
“Misty,” Heavenly‘s best-known number, almost didn’t make it on the album. “We always had two or three extra songs,” Mathis says. “‘Misty’ was sort of relegated to that second or third spot. I was adamant that we record the song, because I had known Erroll Garner, the composer who wrote it, since I was 13 years old, and I had promised him that I was going to record the song. It would have been very embarrassing if we didn’t record it.”
Yet Columbia executives had other ideas. They wanted Mathis to record “Love Look Away” from Flower Drum Song. In the end, Mathis won out—”Misty” made it on Heavenly. He still remembers recording the track: “For the high note after the instrumental break, I had to walk across the room, because the engineers didn’t know how to make a crescendo. So I walked across the room and sang and then walked straight into the microphone, because I wanted it to sound like my voice was coming out of the oboe solo.”
Mathis would later appease the Columbia executives by recording “Love Look Away” in February 1961. The track appeared on the album I’ll Buy You a Star, which stalled at number 38.
Heavenly hit the summit in its eighth week on the chart. It was one of three Mathis titles in the top 10 at the time—More Johnny’s Greatest Hits held at number nine, while Johnny’s Greatest Hits dropped to number 10.
THE TOP FIVE
Week of November 9, 1959
1. Heavenly, Johnny Mathis
2. The Kingston Trio at Large, The Kingston Trio
3. Inside Shelley Berman, Shelley Berman
4. South Pacific, Soundtrack
5. From the Hungry I, The Kingston Trio