Joshua Tehee

Johnny Mathis gets ‘Fresno sound’ with drummer Joe Lizama

Drummer Joe Lizama has played along side singer Johnny Mathis for more than 30 years. He will perform with the singer Friday at Warnors Theatre.
Drummer Joe Lizama has played along side singer Johnny Mathis for more than 30 years. He will perform with the singer Friday at Warnors Theatre. Special to The Bee

Joe Lizama bought his first drum set in the eighth grade. It was a blue sparkle Ludwig set – the biggest in the catalog. He bought it mostly because he’d seen the jazz drummer Joe Morello playing one in an advertisement. It cost him $1,000, and it caused instant buyer’s remorse.

But, it served him well.

Lizama played it all though college at Fresno State and well into his career as a professional drummer, including his first years with singer Johnny Mathis. Lizama has been a core member of the singer’s touring band since 1981 and will join him on stage Friday for the 60th Anniversary Christmas concert at Warnors Theatre.

“He’s a living legend,” says Lizama, who lives in Fresno and teaches percussion at Fresno City College.

Mathis is an old-time romantic crooner who made a name for himself in the pre-rock and roll period of the late 1950s doing jazz and pop standards. Later, he became known for a series of Christmas albums. He is the kind of performer who garners respect and surrounds himself with top-quality musicians, Lizama says.

“We end up playing with good musicians all around the country,” he says. That’s because Mathis typically hires dozens of local musicians in each city he plays. In Fresno, he’ll hire more than 30. The band will play through the singer’s collection of Christmas tunes from music transcribed straight from the albums, Lizama says.

They’ll play the hits, too. You will hear “Misty.” You will hear “Chances Are.”

This is one of just four shows Mathis is performing in December, though he could do a full six weeks of Christmas shows and pack the house every night, Lizama says. Only, he prefers to keep his tour schedule light, so he can put everything he has into each performance. He is 81 years old, after all.

As a rule, the band never plays more than two shows a week, with a travel day in between. Though, the last time they were in England, they broke that rule, Lizama says, and played three shows that week.

As a boss, Mathis is loyal. The core members of his band have been together for decades.

Lizama was hired just out of college, partly on the basis of his résumé – he’d spent two years as a percussionist for the Symphony Orchestra of Brazil while still in college. Partly because Mathis loves Brazil – and partly because the band’s conductor at the time was from Fresno and had seen Lizama play.

Over the years, Mathis has hired several players from Fresno. Lizama jokes that the singer is going for that “Fresno” sound.

He was already working as a drummer before joining Mathis’ band. He was poached from a gig performing with a house band at a dinner theater. He doesn’t remember the exact capacity, but it was in low hundreds, at best. With Mathis, Lizama found himself flying to shows at outdoor arenas, where the band would play to thousands. They were put up in luxury hotels.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” Lizama says. “Night and day from what I had been doing before.”

Sure, Lizama has kept packing boxes on hand for the past 35 years, not sure if or when he’d need them again. But that’s the life of a working musician, he says.

It hasn’t been a bad gig. He’s on retainer with Mathis and gets a stipend, even when he’s not on the road. This allows him to make a living and still have time for other projects. He plays in a six-piece acoustic band called Fire and Rain (they do James Taylor covers, obviously) and in Joe Lenigan’s band. He also plays in the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and with pickup jazz combos when he’s needed.

“I’ve been with him 35 years,” he says. “It doesn’t feel that long.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

Johnny Mathis 60th Anniversary Christmas Concert

  • 7:30 p.m. Friday
  • Warnors Theatre, 1400 Fulton St.
  • $39.50-$129.50
  • 559-264-2848,