I first heard Country Johnny Mathis on a short lived LP called Hillbilly Music…Thank God, Vol. 1. It was on an obscure collection of never-weres and should-a-beens that popster Marshall Crenshaw compiled for reasons that are as lost to my memory as that beautiful piece of vinyl is from my collection. Mathis was singing a cheeky honkytonk duet with his partner Jimmy Lee called Somebody Else Will. That is the truth too, somebody else always will.
If You Don’t Somebody Else Will, Jimmy and Johnny
Johnny was from Maud, TX a small town in the northeast part of the state and was born in 1930 (not 1933 as usually cited). He grew up the son of a preacher and learned to sing in church and play guitar from a reconstructed moonshiner.
A few years later he met Jimmy Fautheree another young singer trying to break through and the two started singing together, but only after Jimmy changed his last name to Lee. Andrew Brown tells the story that while auditioning for Fred Rose with original songs Rose looked at Johnny and said “You write exactly like Hank Williams. You start a great song, but don’t finish it.”
Things begin to fall apart for the duo in the late 1950s. They were fired from the Louisiana Hayride for taking an encore, their manager Tillman Franks started working with Johnny Horton and Mathis was drinking heavily and chasing women more than music. To make matters worse Ray Price recorded their best song and it charted higher than their version did.
Johnny had mostly left the music business by the 1960s and became born-again. Friends warned him it would be the end of his singing career and he said you have to have a career to end one. He would appear from time to time over the years mostly singing country gospel and reuniting with Jimmy in the 1990s, but his legacy is left in the songs that he did finish. They are great songs and he will be missed. Country Johnny Mathis died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia one day short of his 81st birthday.
Touch My Heart has been sung by Johnny Paycheck, Dale Watson, Johnny Bush, Ray Price and Mavis Staples.
Touch My Heart, Johnny Paycheck
I Dreamed My Baby Came Home has been sung by Jason Ringenberg and George Jones and Melba Montgomery.
I Dreamed My Baby Came Home, George Jones & Melba Montgomery
I’ll end this with one of his gospel numbers. It happens to be one of my favorites, but I suppose it’s a favorite for many of us. It’s drenched in pathos and in this oh-so-modern world not everyone can sing it. Country Johnny Mathis can sing it.
The Old Rugged Cross, Country Johnny Mathis