The site of a former church was a fittingly sacred setting for Johnny Mathis’ pure, rapturous and at times reverential performance Thursday evening.
Mathis, in a two-hour concert for the ages, took a sellout crowd at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center on a musical journey filled with spirit and emotion.
The Sharon was built on the former site of the Church On The Square and Mathis, with his, soft, elegant, uplifting style, seemed to lend his voice to a higher power.
A highlight came toward the end of the show when Mathis, accompanied by acoustic guitarist Gil Reigers, turned “The Twelfth of Never” into a melodic, prayerful tune that enveloped the audience with a warm, emotional glow.
This show was part of Mathis’ “60th Anniversary Concert Tour,” and though the singer is now 80, he still possesses a rare, magical voice that has been a major force in American music since 1956.
Mathis knows how to set a romantic mood. Listening to him sing, is like sitting by a fireplace, with a glass of wine and someone you love.
“Johnny is the most romantic singer in the world,” said Villager Linda terBurg, who attended the concert with her husband Bruce. “Listening to him, makes me feel like I’m 18 again, and anything is possible. His music is about romance, love and hope.”
Bruce terBurg often sings in The Villages and praised the singer’s “pitch and tone.” But Mathis’ unique ability goes beyond vocal acrobatics, terBurg added. “Johnny Mathis gets inside a song and makes you feel the emotions of it.”
That is exactly what Mathis did throughout the night. Near the end of the first half of the show, before a 20-minute intermission, Mathis touched all the nerve-endings for generations that grew up with his music. He did it with a remarkable three-song medley that practically defined falling in love during the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
First came “It’s Not For Me to Say, (1957);” “Chances Are, (1956)” and “Gina (1963).” The last song may be the least known of the three, but Mathis gave “Gina” a tender treatment that brought back not only memories but feelings of long ago.
“I might start necking with my husband,” Linda terBurg joked.
“The only problem is she calls me Johnny instead of Bruce,” he cracked.
Many of the couples sitting in The Sharon’s seats were holding hands and snuggling close to each other, basking in the romantic atmosphere of Mathis’ music. Just about anybody over 60 will tell you his songs left an indelible mark on their musical history.
“I’m so fortunate to be (80) years old and still singing these songs,” Mathis said as he put his hand over his mouth to muffle the sound of “80” as a joke to the audience. “These are such nice songs.”
The singer was accompanied by about a 30-piece orchestra, which included nearly a dozen musicians in the horn section and a similar number in a string section.
Mathis, though, had the most unique musical instrument of the night: his voice.
It was on display during such classics as: “Wonderful Wonderful,” “A Certain Smile” and an absolutely stunning version of “Misty” that showed age provides no vocal barrier for Johnny Mathis.
He closed the show with a swinging, Latin-beat on “Brazil.” Then after a thunderous standing ovation, Mathis returned to sing a gentle and appreciative old World War II standard, “You’ll Never Know.”
It was Mathis’ way of sharing his love to his fans and the feeling was mutual.
“I wanted to give Johnny flowers because he has given so much to me,” said Villager Yvonne Weber. She presented the bouquet to Mathis who toted them around the stage as he took his curtain call.
Among those in the audience were Julio and Margarita Varela, parents of the popular singer Fernando Varela, who promoted the Mathis show at The Sharon.
“It took me 60 years to see Johnny Mathis but tonight it was worth the wait,” Julio Varela said. “I was like a little kid; I couldn’t wait for this show. I knew the words to every song he was singing. He still has the beautiful, melodic voice.”
His wife agreed.
“Johnny Mathis’ music brings people together in love and unity,” she said. “Just listening to him makes you feel good all over.”
It was an emotional night for Fernando Varela. He said the late Oscar Feliu originally suggested bringing Mathis to The Villages.
“We were having dinner late one night when Oscar told me, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have Johnny Mathis at The Sharon?’ I called Johnny Mathis’ people the next day to try and book him. Four days later they said he would come. Oscar was delighted.”
Varela spent most of Thursday afternoon watching Mathis rehearse. “It was like a master class in singing,” Varela said. “He’s 80 years old and has been singing professionally for 60 years and that voice is still amazing. He has a quality in his voice that gets right to your heart. I’m telling you, when he sings those ballads, I was on the verge of tears.”
One moment was especially poignant for Fernando. Oscar Feliu used to sing Johnny Mathis songs and one of Oscar’s trademark numbers was “The Twelfth of Never.”
“Oscar loved that song,” Fernando said in a soft voice. “When Johnny Mathis sang that song tonight I could feel Oscar’s spirit in this room. I know Oscar was here and it was very special.”
Such is the majestic power of Johnny Mathis.