February 21, 2003
At the 45th Grammy Awards Sunday, Feb. 23, S.F. State alumnus Johnny Mathis received the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award. The honor recognizes the multifaceted singer's nearly five decades of top-selling vocal recordings.
Mathis was attending San Francisco State College, as it was then called, when he got his first break in the recording business. On weekends, the English and physical education major sang with a fellow student's band at San Francisco jazz clubs. In 1955 a Columbia Records producer heard him and offered the 19-year-old a contract.
Best known for his clear, velvety voice, Mathis was better recognized as a standout athlete in high school and college. As a student at George Washington High School in San Francisco's Richmond District, he was one of the city's top basketball players and a track-and-field star. He came to San Francisco State on an athletic scholarship and his record-setting high jump at State earned him an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team.
By that time, though, Mathis's nascent music career was moving into high gear. He decided to forego an Olympics bid in order to record his first album, a jazzy collection of popular songs, at age 20. After his first recording, which enjoyed modest sales, his Columbia producer steered him toward romantic ballads. The formula worked. Within two years, he appeared on national television and in two movies and churned out three additional albums, including the music industry's first "greatest hits" collection.
Since then, he has made almost 100 albums, of which more than 60 have made the charts. His 1959 "More Greatest Hits" holds the record for the longest time on Billboard's Top Albums chart -- just shy of 10 years. He also holds the distinction of being one of only five artists to have top 40 hits in each of the four decades following his mid-1950s debut.
San Francisco State honored the famous alumnus's legacy in 1982 by creating the Johnny Mathis Invitational Track and Field Meet. The annual competition draws hundreds of athletes from throughout Northern California -- and sometimes Mathis himself -- and is the campus's largest sporting event. In 1997 Mathis was named SFSU Alumnus of the Year.
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