A couple of years ago I published a post I called “Stayin’ Alive”. It served as a tribute to certain legendary figures from different walks of life that were still alive and – for some – even still working well into their 80’s. Then 2016 happened, a year when we lost a long list of entertainers. Although I’ve only lost three from my list (Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer and Chuck Berry), as 2017 dawned I felt like I wanted to shine some light on some older entertainers. Just in case they start dying.
Tony Bennett is a good place to start. Tony Bennett is the ONLY place to start. The man and his career are both truly remarkable. Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria, Queens, New York on August 3, 1926. As of today, that makes him 90 years old. Here’s the thing, though, that I want to establish up front: in these “Stayin’ Alive” episodes, I will try to focus on those legendary personalities that continue to maintain their visibility, at least somewhat, despite their advanced ages. Here again, Bennett is the only place to start as he continues to release albums as recently as December 2016.
Tony grew up the youngest of three kids born to parents from families of Reggio Calabria, a town in rural Italy that is also the birthplace of Gianni and Donatella Versace. Tony grew up in poverty but his father, who died when Tony was 10, instilled in Tony a love of art and literature and a compassion for human suffering. Like so many others of his generation, Tony grew up listening to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. He was known in school as a caricaturist and a singer. In fact, when the Triborough Bridge – now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge; a bridge that connects Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx – opened in 1936, Tony sang and stood next to legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who patted Tony on the head. Tony began singing for money at age 13 in 1939. At this juncture we should pause to consider: Tony Bennett is still ‘singing for money’ – 78 years later. Tony also attended New York’s School of Industrial Art and considered a career as an artist.
Tony was drafted into the US Army in November of 1944 in the final stages of World War 2. In Germany, Tony saw bitter combat in cold winter conditions and escaped death several times. He was also involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. At the conclusion of the war, Tony stayed on in Germany and joined the Special Services, entertaining American troops. Dining one night with a black friend from high school, in an army that was still heavily segregated, Tony was demoted and reassigned to Graves Registration duty. He was discharged in ’46 and studied singing on the GI Bill, Bel Canto singing, a discipline that Sinatra was also a proponent of. He made a few recordings in 1949 (68 years ago!) as Joe Bari but got no love. Also in ’49, singer and actress Pearl Bailey heard Tony sing and asked him to open for her at her show to which she had also invited Bob Hope. Hope liked what he heard and took Tony on the road with him, simplifying Tony’s birth name to ‘Tony Bennett’. The next year, 1950, Tony became a proper professional singer and was signed by Mitch Miller to Columbia Records. Again, let’s stop: Bennett records for Columbia today, a working relationship that began 67 years ago.
Tony began his tenure at Columbia as a crooner of pop tunes. His earliest hits remain some of the songs that are still most closely identified with him: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “Because of You”, “Stranger in Paradise”, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Blue Velvet”. When it comes to ‘mid-century modern’ culture and style, these early recordings of Bennett’s are essential listening. As early as 1954, Bennett began to lean towards jazz and soon after hooked up with the man who would become his long-time pianist, Ralph Sharon, who wisely told Bennett that a career focused on singing sweet pop songs would be a short career. So, Bennett continued to go in a jazz direction and to record quality compositions from Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Perhaps the pinnacle of his recording career came in 1962 with his recording of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. The single only reached #19 but it spent close to a year on various other charts and increased his exposure. The album hit #5 and the single and album reached gold record status. At the Grammys that year the single won Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. It has, of course, become his signature song and was ranked #23 on a list of ‘historically significant’ recordings of the 20th century.
Bennett continued recording quality material as an album artist into the 1970’s when the most telling episode of Bennett’s career occurred. A common method that singers would use throughout the late ’60’s and ’70’s to stay relevant in the rock era was to record the ‘hits of the day’ in their own easy listening style. Andy Williams basically spent his career doing this. Other notable artists employing this method include Mel Torme (listen to his “Sunshine Superman”), Peggy Lee (“A Hard Day’s Night”?) and maybe most infamously, Bing Crosby and his album “Hey, Jude! Hey, Bing!”. The evil Clive Davis suggested that Tony do the same. Bennett was so opposed to the idea that he became physically ill while recording these tracks. The result (“Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!”) was dreadful and Tony never revisited this genre. And this is the thing about Tony: he has always been a tireless purveyor of what’s known as “The Great American Songbook” or American popular standards. These include quality songs that, for the most part, were written in the early twentieth century and have been recorded countless times by every vocalist that operates in this idiom.
Shortly after this episode, Tony took a hiatus from Columbia and joined Verve, a predominantly jazz label. He recorded sparingly and released two quality albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans but real success evaded him at this time. The nadir of his career came in the late 1970’s. Bennett found himself without a record label, without a manager while performing virtually no concerts outside of Las Vegas. His second marriage was failing and the IRS was after him. Worst of all, he developed a cocaine addiction. An overdose almost took his life in 1979.
At this point, Tony Bennett’s story is a common one. Popular singer struggles in the rock era and turns to drugs and trades on his past successes. But also at this point, his story takes a decidedly heartfelt turn. Actually, Tony’s decisions throughout the ’80’s are a blueprint for getting a career back on track. It started with family. Nice. At the dawn of the 1980’s, Tony called his sons, Danny and Dae. Danny, a failing musician with a head for business, joined forces with his father, an immense musical talent who struggled in the business arena. Like Tom Jones with his son around this time, Tony Bennett’s son became his manager. Danny worked wonders with his father. Most importantly from a musical standpoint, Danny began to book his dad into small clubs and colleges to restore his reputation and image. By 1986, Bennett was back with Columbia Records, this time having full artistic control over his recordings.
A lot of credit has to go to Tony’s son, Danny, who simply thought that a youthful audience would appreciate his father if given a chance. Subsequently, no changes were made to Bennett’s formal appearance, song choice, singing style or musical accompaniment. He continued to be exposed to a young, hip audience with appearances on shows such as “Late Night with David Letterman”, “The Simpsons” and various MTV shows. Bennett stood out, he was different, a sixty-year-old man in a silk suit. The kids were down. It was at this time that Tony put his stamp on the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy and began what I call the ‘victory lap’. When a performer is on top of the world, the wheel tends to come around. Tastes and styles change and even true artists can fall out of favour with the public as well as with critics. But after a season, if the artist is true and genuine and has the tools and uses them well he can rise again and achieve legend status. His past career is appreciated and he performs again with fresh ideas while maintaining his classic style. Bennett stayed true to who he was as a performer and took up the banner again as the world’s predominant singer of standards.
Writing this post has made me reassess my feelings towards Tony’s recorded output since his victory lap began with the release of “The Art of Excellence” in 1986. I’ve always been a little disappointed with the themes he has explored on his albums. Each of his albums seems to be dedicated to a specific set list of tracks united by a common thread: songs associated with a certain artist or composer and endless variations on the dreaded ‘duets’ format. Too often it seemed to me to be gimmicky. And let’s face it, some themes have been decidedly ill-advised (“In the Playground”, children’s songs ‘featuring’ an appearance by Rosie O’Donnell and “Viva Duets” containing duets with Spanish artists, most of whom are unknown in English-speaking North America). I wanted them all to be like 2004’s fine “The Art of Romance”: a small group, good songs, excellent singing. My distaste with these ‘theme’ albums stems mostly from my immense disappointment with the two duets albums with which Frank Sinatra ended his decades-long recording career. Pointless and poorly executed, Frank’s “Duets” and “Duets II” are considered pointless debaucheries by Sinatraphiles: classic Frank songs that need no new versions recorded with a baffling parade of duet partners. Compare this with the stellar final recordings of the late Johnny Cash and you lament what could have been: 80-year-old FS, on a stool, singing live with a couple instruments. So, I didn’t want to see this happen to Bennett. I mean, who needs “If I Ruled the World” with Queen Latifah? Add to this the fact that if you saw Bennett live around this time, as my wife and I did twice, you would have been delighted with the sound of his three-piece group and his impeccable and ageless chops. So, why all the gimmicks on the albums?! But here’s what I figure. Tony goes into the studio to record an album of the songs of Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, etc. with the intention of using his unique platform to let the world know what wonderful songs these artists are responsible for. After all, that has been Bennett’s thing since at least the ’60’s, carrying the banner for the great musical figures of the 20th century. Something else to consider is something I had an inkling of but I really had no idea about until I looked into it. It’s about the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. This award has been given out for the last 26 years and Bennett has won it an astounding 13 times, including one stretch when he won it 5 years running. What’s even more amazing is that since the award’s inception, Tony has released 19 albums – and 13 of them have won this award. They’ve also fared well on the charts. Tony’s last six albums have gone to #1 on the U.S. Jazz Albums chart giving him a total of 11 (of his last 19) albums to top this chart. “Duets II” and “Cheek to Cheek” both reached #1 on the Jazz Albums chart as well as the Billboard 200 chart of all pop albums. After a second look, I guess I can concede that only “The Playground” – kids songs featuring Elmo and Rosie O’Donnell, “Viva Duets” – the disposable collection featuring Latino vocalists that Bennett for the most part has little or no rapport with and “Cheek to Cheek” – his chart-topping gimmick album with the questionable talent and repulsive personality of Lady Gaga, are the ones I can say were actually bad ideas.
Bottom line: Tony Bennett has become a legend who really has no peer. And his career as a whole? Well, not even FS was topping the charts at the age of 88. He is a true survivor, still vital, active and relevant well into his 80’s. He truly deserves the accolades now, while he is still here, stayin’ alive.