Music keeps Anderson man on the move
ANDERSON — Johnny Mann has grown up following orders.
He followed them when he served two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict. He followed orders when he went to boarding school as a child. And he followed them when he was at home.
One of the most important orders that he followed, he still remembers. It was an order from his mother when he said he wanted to play football.
“She was a musician. She could sing, produce shows and play the piano. Therefore, when I said I wanted to play football, she told me to sit down,” he said, laughing and motioning with his finger downward. “In other words, I was going to sit down to the piano or she was going to kill me.”
That was the order that introduced him to what he has loved all of his life: music.
As a result, he went on to sing in his church’s choir, the choir at his church’s boarding school, in the U.S. Army and eventually in Hollywood. Mann would go on to star in his own national television show, win two Grammys and be nominated for five, to perform at the White House twice and become the voice behind Theodore of Alvin and the Chipmunks. And he mingled with legends from Hollywood’s golden era, such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Mae West.
Now an Andersonian, Mann, with the help of a local writer, Kathryn Smith, has put those stories and his with music together in a book, which is set to come out this year.
Mann was born in Baltimore 84 years ago. His life of music started when he was 5 years old, and he joined the boys choir at Old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore. His mother, Lillian, was the musical director for the Baltimore Civic Opera Company, and was a Peabody Conservatory graduate. Before his parents divorced, they were a quartet of singers.
“Music was in that family,” Mann’s wife, Betty, said. “There was always music. They would always sing four-part harmonies.”
And it was there from the beginning for Mann.
He said the choir was singing over him when he was baptized at Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. So choral music has always played an important part of his love affair with music. “Twenty years later, I was singing in that same choir,” he said.
Even now, he is part of a choir. Mann is a member of the choir at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Anderson.
“I like singing in the group,” Mann said. “That way you never hear me.”
His talent would earn him a scholarship to the boarding school that was connected to the church where he was baptized. When he was 8 years old, his parents divorced, and his mother raised him and his brother, Nick, on 50-cent piano lessons.
Mann said it was the discipline that his mother gave him and the boarding school gave him that kept him out of trouble as a young man. Once, his mother washed his mouth out with soap for saying a curse word.
“You learned to do what you were told,” Mann said, laughing. “When mom said to do something, you did it.”
This attitude led him into the U.S. Army and the National Guard. Mann likes structure.
From 1951 until 1953, he served in the U.S. Army. Again, his musical talent would shape his life. He was assigned to a Washington Congressional Unit and became part of the Army Field Band. He played the trombone and traveled the country and even to France, England, Switzerland and other European countries. The band also performed for U.S. President Dwight D. Eishenhower’s inauguration.
When he finished his service, Mann decided he did not want to go back to Baltimore. He wanted to get into “big music.” Before he joined the Army, he had played at clubs and other venues in Baltimore and realized that to make a serious career out of music, he would need to move to one of two cities: New York City or Hollywood.
“I might starve to death in California, but at least I wouldn’t freeze to death in California,” Mann said, with a wide grin.
So to California he went.
His first break came when someone heard him playing and mentioned that he ought to go by a new studio startup, Liberty Records. Mann said the man who told him that was a stranger, and he never saw him again. But he followed his advice.
Mann gathered together professional vocalists and eventually formed what he called, The Johnny Mann Singers. Over his career, he recorded 42 albums and for three years was the host of the “Johnny Mann Stand Up and Cheer” musical talent show.
He laughs now when he talks about how he ended up in the recording studio with Frank Sinatra quite by accident. And he was able to see firsthand how Dean Martin would perform without any rehearsals, thus turning him into a legend thanks to his unique sound.
And one of Mann’s dearest friends was the man whose voice brought Tony the Tiger to life.
“He would start way down on the ground and bring up Tony the Tiger’s voice,” Mann said. “For 53 years, he was the voice of Tony the Tiger.”
Mann would fill his career with concerts, television shows, recording jingles for radio commercials and choral competitions. Twice, he and the Johnny Mann Singers performed at the White House. His home features photos of Mann with several U.S. presidents.
All of his life has been a joy because of that first order that he followed so many years ago.
He said he eventually moved to Anderson, in part because family moved here, and he and wife Betty, love the area.
He has kept up with his music. He’s worked with singers in Nashville and recently returned from Texas, where he performed in a concert at a church. He’s written a new alma mater for Anderson University, a task he was asked to do as part of the school’s centennial celebration.
As his book title suggests, Mann has had a “life in song.”
Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, http://www.andersonsc.com