Jordan Ryan Pedersen wants you to know that the original lyrics to “Le Freak” were “Fuck off.”
A stab at relevance this naked shouldn’t have worked. “Johnny Mathis does disco.” It should have sat alongside Pat Boone in a leather onesie doing Alice Cooper, Ja Rule at the Milwaukee Bucks halftime show, or Ja Rule anytime.
Previously on Johnny Mathis: easy listening crooner records the kind of sexless, denuded music suitable for patients recovering from surgery. I ran a “Name that Tune” game at an assisted living facility for two years, and even our champion tune namers Charlotte and Joan couldn’t tell the difference between “Misty” and “Chances Are.” This A&E Live by Request I found on YouTube looks like it should’ve installed oxygen tanks in the bathroom for the occasion. He has recorded six Christmas albums. *speaks directly into mic* It’s old people music.
But at some point, Mathis seemed to start to resent the idea of being consigned to the Shady Acres rec room. He cut a record with Philly soul pioneers Linda Creed and Thom Bell, flirted with actual R&B. He’d even managed to get back to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978 with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” a nugget of dreadful soft-rock treacle he recorded with Deniece Williams – who has a great voice but is best known for “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” from Footloose. But his next two follow-up records of mostly original material – a departure from his norm of recording standards or contemporary hits from other artists – tanked. With his window of relevance rapidly shrinking, he needed to do something drastic. So the king of the Werther’s set did something crazy: he called Chic.
At the time, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the twin kings of the Chic Organization, were enjoying an audacious hot streak. Chic’s “Le Freak” and “Good Times” had both hit number one, and “We Are Family,” the future gay anthem they made with Sister Sledge, had peaked at number two.
The record they made with Johnny Mathis is a remarkable feat for several reasons. First, it’s a great record. “I Want to Fall in Love,” “Something to Sing About,” and “Judy” would’ve been hits if Columbia hadn’t had their head up their ass and shelved the record. “Sing” has the same steady head-nodding groove that made “Get Lucky” huge. (Name somebody other than Nile Rodgers who could have a top 5 hit at age 60.) “I Want to Fall in Love” is sort of a dual mission statement: it’s got both Rodgers’ inimitable spindly guitar, and the band provides the perfect setting for Mathis to trace arcs in the sky with that voice. Corny motherfucker though he may be, Johnny can sing. Nobody’s disputing that.
But what’s most impressive is how I Love My Lady is both a great Chic record and a great Johnny Mathis record – I mean, I think it’s the best Johnny Mathis record but I’m not collecting Social Security yet, so take that with a grain of salt. It’s got the Chic groove, the slinky Rodgers guitar. But it lets Mathis hit the high notes that make the blue hairs quiver. And credit where it’s due, dude is *locked in.* Chic’s trademark awkward emotional over-directness is a tough sell – “You’ll see/That I can be the one who/Makes emotions release” is the kind of love song lyric George Lucas would write – but Mathis makes it work.
Indeed, I Love My Lady is a great record because it is not, in actuality, a transparent commercial grab. It’s the work of a guy trapped in a dead end generic cul-de-sac trying to make a genuinely great record. That it sat in Columbia’s vaults until Legacy put it out on Record Store Day in 2017 is a travesty. Why Columbia never released the record is still unclear, though disco was something of a bête noire by 1980. Mathis’ aging, predominately white fans might well have been put off by their favorite singer shacking up with a genre as notoriously black and gay as disco. And it’s still not available on streaming platforms, thanks assholes.
Empty your wallet on Discogs or the reissue recently pressed by Real Gone Music, cobble it together on YouTube, threaten to dox a Columbia exec until they give you a copy. Whatever. But let it languish no more.
The saddest thing about it, though? The record would’ve been a huge hit. Irony!