Monday, April 7, 2003


Singer Toni Mathis started in Cincinnati

By Nicole Hamilton
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Toni Mathis' crowning moment happened in New York City.

The singer was traveling the country in her brand new 1973 Eldorado convertible, stopping to perform at various nightclubs with musicians she'd meet. It was in New York City that she met and sang with the legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.

"That was her time, she just loved it. She just loved to sing," said her former husband and longtime friend, Tony Mathis of Chicago Heights.

Ms. Mathis died March 29 at Con-Del Hospital in Libertyville, Ill., from complications from heart disease. She was 60.

Born Esther Smith and raised in Cumminsville, Ms. Mathis started singing at an early age. Never formally trained, she launched her singing career at the former Cabana Lounge in Avondale immediately after she graduated from high school.

She sang a variety of styles, from blues and gospel to rock and jazz.

"She literally took Cincinnati by storm. Everybody was talking about her," said Tony Mathis.

She was called Little Esther at the beginning of her career, but the late Dale Stevens (a former entertainment writer with the Cincinnati Post) persuaded her to change her name to Toni Mathis - also the name of her new husband.

She performed around Cincinnati at venues like Old Castle Farm, The Peppermint Lounge in Newport, and The Living Room. And she kept company with music notables like blues man Lonnie Mack and Motown's Mary Wells.

In 1966 she and her husband moved to Chicago. Her career flourished in the Windy City, where she sang with King Kolax, Don Carone and Jackie Wilson - whom her husband met in Harlem in 1954.

"We went to see Jackie's show in Memphis," said Tony Mathis, "which is where Toni and I met Elvis Presley."

She also recorded an album with Capitol Records.

About five years ago, Ms. Mathis moved to Round Lake Beach, Ill. Although her health was beginning to fail, she still performed until a year ago.

Surviving is a niece. Services were held. The body was cremated.


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