Watching modest, white-haired Tony Bennett clean up at the Emmy awards last month, I felt a special warm glow. In a medium that intensely values whatever’s young and hot, here was respect being paid to someone resolutely old and retro. And yet, after 50 years in the entertainment business, I think it’s safe to say that Tony Bennett’s success is anything but a fluke.
Of course, I'm prejudiced. I was raised in an anti-Sinatra household (yes, there are such things), and in our family, the party line was that Frank Sinatra got all the attention, but Tony Bennett was the real musician. As it happens, Sinatra himself was of the same opinion — in 1965 he told a reporter, “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business” — but as a kid, I didn’t know this. All I knew was that Bennett hits like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “If I Ruled the World” grabbed me a whole lot more than “My Way” or “Strangers in the Night.” Sinatra had attitude; Bennett had sincerity. No contest, it seemed to me.
Granted, big band arrangements and cocktail-lounge suavity were hardly my cup of tea in the late '60s once the British Invasion hit. In the 1970s, I never stopped to wonder what had happened to Tony Bennett (or, for that matter, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Vic Damone, Al Martino, Jerry Vale, all those Italian crooners that had once been on the radio). Well, I wasn’t alone, apparently; changing musical tastes hit Tony Bennett hard in the '70s, and his life, not to mention his career, fell apart.
What brought him back was his son, Danny Bennett, who became his manager in the early '80s. Danny Bennett shrewdly decided to market his dad’s image – the tux, the standard repertoire, the whole works – not to the old fogeys but to a younger audience that had never heard Cole Porter or George Gershwin tunes. A brilliant move, to say the least.
Who needs new material when you can breathe life into the old chestnuts like no one else? So Bennett’s latest project, a planned multi-volume compilation of standards, is just brand extension, really. Tony Bennett Sings the Ultimate American Songbook Volume 1 not only has no new songs, it doesn’t even have any new recordings – the release dates listed range from 1958 (“Every Time We Say Goodbye”) to 1997 (“The Way You Look Tonight”). But it does represent a careful culling of his own best versions of the songs he loves, and who could quarrel with that?
Bennett has always been a canny stylist, calibrating tempo and phrasing and texture to get at the heart of a song’s meaning; that talent may have deepened over the years, but he'd started off so high, there was little room for improvement. What’s amazing to me, though, listening to old and new tracks mixed together, is how little Bennett’s vocal quality has changed. His trademark relaxed vocal technique was not only a smart artistic choice, it has allowed him to keep his pipes in very good shape. Okay, the vibrato’s more pronounced in more recent recordings, but Bennett doesn’t have to sell his work as a grizzled, sadder-but-wiser veteran.
I admit to being a sucker for torch songs, and Bennett’s got a real knack for choked-up emotion – I find myself sneaking back to certain tracks, like “The Very Thought Of You” (a 1966 recording with a gorgeous cornet solo by Bobby Hackett), a unbearably wistful 1997 version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” and that 1967 “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” its lingering pace simply dripping with regret. Bennett’s understated elegance on these makes everybody else’s versions sound histrionic and overcooked.
So what exactly is this CD package? It’s not exactly a greatest hits album – signature tunes like “Rags to Riches” and “The Good Life” and the iconic “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” are conspicuously absent. It’s not a “history of” collection, since the tracks are organized in no chronological order. Some tracks are live, some are studio productions; there’s one duet (“Moonglow”, with k.d. lang, from his mega-hit MTV Unplugged album) but no others. It’s not a tribute to a specific composer, like Ella Fitzgerald’s masterful songbook albums. Alongside classics like “Anything Goes” and “A Foggy Day” are less-canonical numbers such as “You Go To My Head” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.” Let’s be honest – we’re cleaning out the attic here.
But attic cleaning can be wonderful. At age 81, Bennett has outlived all his rivals – though, given his amiable nature, they were generally his friends as well. (This is not a minor point; that amiability pervades every track he’s ever done, just as surely as Sinatra’s edgy persona pervaded his.) Bennett’s now well ensconced as the keeper of the Great American Songbook, and frankly, it couldn’t be in better hands.Powered by Sidelines