Sincerity. That’s Tony Bennett’s gift. Among his peers, Frank Sinatra had greater emotional depth; Bing Crosby, more verbal dexterity, Ray Charles was bluesier; Bobby Darin, brasher; but no one was more earnest than Bennett on ballads like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”(Nor were they more exultant than he was on his MTV romp “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.”) Just check out his earliest hits: 1950’s “The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” and his ’51 cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Forget the over-orchestration; what matters is that regular guy plaintively singing his heart out. (The ordinary-Joe persona also allowed Bennett to mask his sophisticated vocal technique.)
This direct emotional connection with his audience is why the singer born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on Aug. 3, 1926, raised in Astoria, Queens, and renamed by Bob Hope, still matters. On his new Phil Ramone-produced album, Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic, he reinterprets several signature hits with an eclectic roster of guests, including Bono, Elton John, Juanes, John Legend and the Dixie Chicks. And with an NBC special featuring many of the same performers and directed by Rob Marshall, Bennett is celebrating his 80th birthday in style.
And he should. Bennett is the lone authentic practitioner of a dying tradition—authentic because he was alive when the Great American Songbook was being penned. To modern singers, these are standards, relics of a bygone era. (And if you’re Rod Stewart, you warble them like it’s Sunday night at the karaoke bar.) But to Bennett, this—the sound of his youth—is pop music. He understands these compositions and gets their arcane references. That’s why, for example, on The Art Of Romance (2004), he can take a chestnut like “I Remember You” and revitalize it with emotional gravitas. It’s not only that Bennett is still around; it’s that he’s vital. The music still matters to him, therefore he still matters to us.
Bennett is also a risk taker. In 1957, sick of Columbia Records asking him to record inferior material, he released the daring The Beat Of My Heart, essentially a call-and-response between Bennett and a Who’s Who of jazz drummers. The cognoscenti were surprised, but they shouldn’t have been. Bennett’s career always had a jazz underpinning. All the great singers adored the music of their formative years. That’s why there was an extra throb in the throat whenever Crosby sang Dixieland, Sinatra swing, Brother Ray country & western and Darin R&B. This was the music that forever influenced their work. With Bennett, it’s always been jazz. That’s why he’s so comfortable—much more than any of the aforementioned vocalists—within an intimate quartet setting. It’s also why his highly acclaimed mid-’70s collaborations with pianist Bill Evans were so effortlessly brilliant. With just piano and voice, the dynamic duo mined emotional gold. And pumping up the jazz cred, in 1959 Bennett did two albums with the great Basie band, years before Sinatra and The Count’s acclaimed trilogy.
The ’70s saw Bennett taking more risks. After leaving Columbia in 1971, he took an extended London sojourn and then formed the Improv label, which was successful artistically but not financially. Then in 1979, he asked his son Danny to rejuvenate his career. With careful planning and booking in jazz and rock venues, Danny steered his father away from a beckoning Vegas hell and reheated his career. In 1986 they returned—with a partnership deal—to Columbia and released the notable Art Of Excellence.
The Evans albums prove Bennett the best interpreter of lyrics, with the exception of Sinatra. But even between those two, the competition is close. On swing tunes, Sinatra’s swagger rules the day. But Bennett’s unselfconscious joy also charms. Take “The Best Is Yet To Come,” which both performed. Where Sinatra gave it a sexual spin—taking the title literally—Bennett made it an optimistic ode. Each is a classic.
On ballads, Sinatra’s manic-depressive brilliance remains unmatched. But Bennett is a terrific torch singer, as well. “When Joanna Loved Me” and “Solitude” are wonderfully rueful works. And age has brought Bennett—like the best blues singers—an emotional gravity that, as his voice coarsened from a soaring tenor to a husky croon, he’s exploited for emotional coloring. Consider “I Got Lost In Her Arms” from The Art Of Excellence. It’s a masterpiece of quiet devastation.
And Bennett still has vocal chops. In concert, he’ll hold a note for 32 bars or sing “Fly Me To The Moon” without any amplification. In fact, an undeniable pleasure of Duets is listening to Bennett lay waste to young-uns John Legend on “Sing You Sinners,” Tim McGraw on “Cold, Cold Heart,” Juanes on “The Shadow Of Your Smile” and vets Paul McCartney and Elton John on “The Very Thought Of You” and “Rags To Riches,” respectively. Only Barbra Streisand on “Smile,” Diana Krall on “The Best Is Yet To Come,” Stevie Wonder on “For Once In My Life” and frequent duet partner k.d. lang on “Because Of You” match Bennett’s considerable gifts. And every now and then he’ll unleash a trademark high note as he does to George Michael on “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” just to let them know TB’s still livin’ large and definitely in charge.
Paste: What’s your earliest musical memory?
Tony Bennett: I grew up during the Depression. Every Sunday my wonderful family would get together. They’d make a circle around us, and we’d entertain them. The encouragement I got from them was so strong that to this day I feel positive about performing. When I first started out and someone said I wasn’t very good, I’d think of my family—they liked it, so I must have something.
P: Who were your idols?
TB: The father of jazz, Louis Armstrong. Frank Sinatra. A lot of musicians like Art Tatum, Stan Getz and Errol Garner.
P: What made them special?
TB: Well, it was an age of individualism. They were so different and great at the same time. Also, there was jazz. That was a big influence.
P: Why has jazz influenced you?
TB: It’s the only cultural export America has. We have a lot of power and money but, culturally, this is it. I travel worldwide and each country shows what they’ve contributed. The British show you theater, the Italians music and art, the French art and cooking, the Germans science. The only original thing we’ve ever contributed is from New Orleans. It’s jazz. Elongated improvisation.
P: You’re such a relaxed performer. How long did it take you to be so comfortable?
TB: Nine years. I was told by the early masters that’s how long it would take, and they were right.
P: Who else did you learn from?
TB: Actually, the audience became my teachers. They told me what they did and didn’t like. If something got moderate applause, I’d place it in a different section of the show. If it got little applause, I’d take it out. If it got a positive reaction, I’d accent it and then find a complimentary song.
P: What do you think about rock artists doing standards from the Great American Songbook?
TB: I think it’s a good thing. I was a little apprehensive at first. Like I was when my son Danny came up with the idea for the new album. He got the most popular artists on the planet. And it turned out well.
Growing up, I witnessed many a man crying into his beer listening to “When Joanna Loved Me.”
TB: Oh, that was Sinatra’s favorite. He’d get tears in his eyes when he’d hear me sing it. Once at a party, he started talking to me about the song and he welled up. He loved it that much.
P: Any songs ever make you misty?
TB: Many songs from Sinatra and Nat Cole. Also works from artists that should be more popular—like Johnny Hartman who recorded with John Coltrane. A beautiful singer.
P: How did “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” become your signature tune?
TB: It was just the timing. Back then, singles had an A and B side. For the A side, I was working on “Once Upon A Time.” Ralph Sharon [Bennett’s pianist/arranger for nearly 40 years] found “Heart” and thought since we were going to play San Francisco we should do it. I tried it out in Little Rock, Ark. There was a bartender there while we rehearsed it. Afterwards he told us he’d buy that song if we recorded it. That was an incentive to keep working on it. When we did it in San Francisco, the audience implored us to record it. So it became the B side. And when the single came out, the public flipped it. The record sold like crazy. I don’t know why, but people just love that song.
P: You’ve had so many great collaborations with pianists. Bill Evans, Bill Charlap and your longtime accompanists Ralph Sharon and Lee Musiker.
TB: There’s an art to accompaniment. The great ones know how to make someone else look good. They support your breathing and phrasing. They know when to stop and when to fill an open spot. It’s a rare gift. Very few do it properly.
P: Let’s talk about some of my favorite albums of yours. The Movie Song Album. (1966)
TB: That’s my favorite. It was done with my favorite contemporary composer, Johnny Mandel. I love his songs: “Emily,” “A Time For Love” and, of course, “The Shadow Of Your Smile,” which I sang at his invite at the Academy Awards—and it won!
P: The Art Of Excellence. (1986)
TB: I took a break from Columbia for many years. They wanted me to sing whatever was in the Top Ten. I was against compromising so I took a break, went to England and had a great time. I didn’t sell any records so the trades said my career went down. Actually, it was paradise. I got to work with Robert Farnon who’s the greatest orchestrator. I did three albums and a 13-week television series with him. It was wonderful. Then my son Danny started managing me. He worked out a partnership with Columbia. Rather than getting a small percentage as a royalty, I now owned my records. I never had to look back after that album.
P: Astoria: Portrait Of The Artist. (1990)
TB: I love Astoria. I grew up there. You know, I can live anywhere. My son’s good to me and made sure that I’m financially solvent. So I can live in the south of France, Palm Springs, Palm Beach, but I like Astoria. The people are the greatest. The folks—secretaries, firemen, teachers, policemen—who make New York City work, live there. I live in [Manhattan] but every day I go back to Astoria to play tennis. I just feel comfortable in that little town.
P: From tributes to Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington to a children’s record, you’ve specialized in theme albums. How do you go about picking them?
TB: I look for different concepts to keep things fresh. On The Playground (1998), I just wanted to do a grownup album for children. When I observe children, I notice they’re more intelligent than they’re treated. They’re given some little idiot song to learn over and over. I chose songs like “Swingin’ On A Star” with good lyrics that I knew they’d like if they heard them. And since they’re standards, the parents would enjoy them, too. I had a lot fun doing that album.
P: You’ve sung with so many—from Sinatra to k.d. lang. What do you look for in a duet?
TB: The contrast of voices is very important. The best example of this is Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. He had that growl and she had that sweet sound. I feel that way about k.d. lang. We just love each other.
All the duets on this album were done live, together, in the studio. It’s the way I perform. A lot of the artists had never done it before. They couldn’t believe how much fun they had. Many said they were going to start recording this way. It’s a nice way to work. Walk in prepared and make three or four takes instead of waiting 14 weeks to finish a record.
P: You can hear the joy in the performances.
TB: Yes. There’s spontaneity to them. The whole group was wonderful. They’ll all be around for a long time.
P: Were any intimidated by you?
TB: Not at all. Here’s what I got a kick out of: I was 10 years younger than Sinatra and Cole. They were my masters. So I was surprised that [the people I worked with on this record] all inevitably turned to me and said, ‘You’re the master.’ I was shocked. It’s funny how Father Time works things out.
P: Any surprises?
TB: Each one surprised me. The Dixie Chicks had never done a swing song. Afterwards, they couldn’t get over how much they loved it. We recorded where the artists were. For example, we recorded Paul McCartney and George Michael in London. We did seven sides in New York and about seven in Los Angeles. We’re doing the same thing with my special. It follows the arc of my career. I’m in L.A. filming with Streisand and possibly Christina Aguilera. Last night, we did Stevie Wonder, who was amazing.
P: You’re an accomplished artist, as well. What influence does your artwork have on your music?
TB: Well, whether it’s a painting or an interpretation of a song, I have one premise and it’s all based on a search for truth and beauty. It’s about loving life and celebrating it.
P: At 80-years-old, what do you think Tony Bennett has brought to music?
TB: I don’t think I’ve brought anything. I just try to stay myself and present an honest interpretation. That’s what Sinatra, Cole and Billie Holiday did. They were different from everyone else by remaining themselves.
P: What was your opinion of rock and has it changed throughout the years?
TB: The only reason I disliked rock was Alan Freed [the legendary deejay] started banging on a telephone book while on the radio and telling the kids, ‘this is your music and your parents like the other kind.’ I didn’t like splitting the family in half. It made parents mad at young people and the young people disappointed that their parents didn’t respect what they were doing. I like to sing for the whole family. When I played the Paramount theatre in New York in the ’50s, doing an inhuman seven shows a day, the managers would tell us in the morning, ‘just sing great songs because everybody’s going to like it.’ I stayed with that even when the businessmen at the labels with their demographics switched to rock. Now, I understood that. They have to pay their workers’ salaries. And you did get artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. The problem was, instead of promoting their catalog, they started going for the big kill, for a lot of quick money. Problem was, a lot of these songs didn’t last. Fifteen weeks later, it was forgotten. I wanted to make records that would last forever.
P: Do you like rap?
TB: It all depends on who’s doing it. To quote Fred Astaire: ‘If it doesn’t swing, I’m out of here.’
P: You’ve always been politically conscious. You marched with Martin Luther King. In concert, you’ve praised leaders like Nelson Mandela. What do you think about the state of the world today?
TB: I think it’s pretty crazy. I don’t like that we’re loaded up with fear. I grew up in an era when President Roosevelt said that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. He encouraged the people and gave them hope. The Kennedys gave people hope. This business of frightening people and keeping everyone worried about what’s going to happen next, that’s not American.
P: Last question: What did you think about finally winning the best album Grammy for MTV Unplugged?
TB: (laughs) I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t. One of the greatest moments of my life.