Encores & Curtain Calls: Tony Bennett
“If I cannot fly, let me sing.”
— Stephen Sondheim
Once upon a time there was a fatherless young boy who came of age during the era of the Great Depression; his mother — as he put it — “worked a penny a dress to put food on the table for her three children.” Anthony Dominick Benedetto, a son of Italian -American extraction and a young man who successfully negotiated early-20th-century biases against Italian Americans and other such latter-day immigrant populations, eventually attended the High School for the Industrial Arts in New York City and worked as a singing waiter.
After serving in the U.S. infantry in World War II, he availed himself of the G.I. Bill to study singing and acting at the American Theatre Wing. His love of singing got him gigs in the American Forces Network and as a singing waiter in Greenwich Village, where he caught the attention of iconic singer Pearl Bailey, who was there to arrange a forthcoming show featuring her special guest, Bob Hope.
Upon hearing the young white man sing, Bailey, whose entire career had been mostly confined to solely black cultural performers and performances, told the club owner, “If you don’t have that boy open for me, I’m not doing the show.”
Said Hope, in response to Benedetto’s suggestion to shorten his name to Joe Bari, “It’s a phony name ... better make it Tony Bennett.’
The rest, and it is a vast “rest,” made show business history during the last and into the present century. You can hear Bennett perform for yourself — during what one can only imagine will be one of the last tours of his present incarnation on earth — at Bushnell Theatre’s Mortensen Hall, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, Conn., on Friday, May 30, at 8 p.m.
Reminiscing about Bennett’s early years, producer and bandleader Mitch Miller, who signed Bennett on to the Columbia label, said “All these kids were imitating Frank (Sinatra), and I got him to stop singing like Frank. You can still hear to this day some of those qualities but I said ‘You have your own qualities, you don’t have to sound like Sinatra; there’s only one Sinatra, and he’s got it.’”
Renowned jazz & blues singer Joe Williams, who also signed on with Count Basie, recalls, of Bennett, when he was with the Count Basie Band, “He would make you cry every night with the beauty of what he and Ralph Sharon (Bennett’s piano partner) were doing ... It was just a wonderful thing.”
After 20 years with Columbia Records, the management attempted to dictate exactly what Bennett could and could not sing, limiting him specifically to top 10 hits, a decision which did not sit well with the singer. He left the firm, starting his own label, called Improv Records. For a number of years, it recorded only rarely. Coincidentally at this time, the world of music was morphing perilously from the harmonically and melodically rich archive of the American Songbook to the, by contrast, much shallower creations of rock ’n’ roll, with its far more repetitious and primitive musical patterns.
It was during this period that Bennett had his relatively brief but soberingly close encounter with drugs and death, close enough to cure him once and for all of his flirtation with escapism and illusion and to revolutionize his world-view, one which might best be summed up by the title of his third and most recent book: “Life is a Gift; the Zen of Bennett.”
His lifelong quest for quality and clarity led him to work with such superb musicians as the peerless jazz pianist, Bill Evans, with whom he produced two transparently beautiful albums. It was a partnership rooted in a profound mutual respect, for both were nothing if not back-bendingly generous musical collaborators, whose care and concern for their colleagues would never allow them to selfishly seize the limelight. My own hunch is that, given their shared regard, their musical marriage would have gone on to produce many further children had not Evans’ succumbed to the ravages of drug abuse shortly after their second album, “Together Again.”
In the following 65 years, the fatherless boy who loved music so much he could not resist bursting into song went on to garner some 17 Grammy awards, sing for 10 presidents and win the high regard of much of both the pop and jazz worlds, with such lifelong friends and supporters as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney (for clueless youngsters: George’s Clooney’s peerless chanteuse-aunt, gloriously visible and audible in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”). In his later decades, as well, Bennett enjoyed the reverence of a slew of contemporary artists with whom he produced three late-life duet albums, including such luminaries as James Taylor and Lady Gaga, who by all accounts, could barely keep her adoring hands off of the charismatic octogenarian.
The not-getting-older-but-getting-better superstar, referring to the joys that have propelled him throughout his nine decades, insisits “I have no desire whatsoever to retire; if I’m lucky, I just want to get better as I get older. Through the years, you shed the idea of competition and the desire to be the ‘best.’ Instead, you just want to get better for yourself. And if you do what you’re passionate about, the material things will come. I never need a vacation because I have a passion to sing and paint, and I get to do both every day. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never worked a day in my life.’
Even at the age of 88, he declines being called “Mr. Bennett,” even by smitten and proper British fans four generations his junior.
Guardian: Hello, Mr. Bennett, sir. “Tony” feels insufficiently reverential. What do people call you?
Yet, in spite of such simplicity, it was “Tony,” in all his natural splendor, who was recently voted the Best Dressed Man in Britain.
As with almost any life, anyone who cares to scrutinize the fine print mercilessly enough is sure to find something which raises an eyebrow, but that, in the end, is of relatively little significance. For many who have experienced him, Bennett remains an icon of the things that are loveliest and most consoling about the America of the war and post-war eras: a certain long-missing but still-longed-for sense of true humanity, of heartfelt sincerity, of patient regard.
All one has to do is listen to his cool-warm croon, read his simple, softly offered words, sense the unsuspected subtlety and affection in his much-prized drawings and paintings, or simply feel the caring ambience of his easygoing, humble presence to know that one is in the midst of a “paisan,” (Italian: true countryman) a “mensch,” (Yiddish: one to admire and emulate), a real human being.
Yes, it’s a bit of a jaunt to drive to Hartford, Conn. — Mapquest clocks it in as about an hour from Greenfield — but, heavens, how far would you travel to see not merely a piece of living history, but also a rare, beautiful, comforting and humane presence?
Afterward, you could leave this earth happy, much as I firmly believe will Tony himself, when his time comes.
The Bushnell’s website — www.bushnell.org — lists a range of ticket prices from $59 to $129, with the most expensive seats sold out. Additionally, the website www.eventticketscenter.com sells tickets that seem to be more expensive but which include seats the Bushnell indicates are sold out. You can also purchase tickets by calling the Bushnell’s box office at 888-824-2874.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.