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Retro Redux: Tony Bennett – Before He Was A Legend

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A while back I posted an article called The Crooner Conundrum, which discussed the state of crooner-hood in general and included a couple of contradictory quotes about Tony Bennett — “One of the world’s favorite crooners” and “Bennett is a belter, not a crooner”. I guess when it comes to Tony, it depends on how you define it.

I got to thinking about that recently when I read about Tony reaching his 80th birthday, and all the attention he gets for the energy he still shows on tour and in the recording studio. He's deservedly admired for that, but I wonder if today's music fans really know much about his early career, before he became the loved and respected elder statesman of jazz singers. I think that most know that he's been a popular singer for years, and of course that he's famous for leaving his heart in San Francisco, but I'd be surprised if they know much more about him. I'd also venture a guess that not many have ever listened to his early recordings, when his voice was strong and vibrant. (Not that there's anything wrong with his current version — he still sounds better than any 80-year-old has ever sounded.)

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was a New Yorker, born and raised in Queens, the son of a grocer who died when Tony was a young boy. Times were hard after that, but his mother persevered and managed to keep her family of four children intact. Young Tony showed talent as a singer even as a boy and was determined to make it a career, although his ambition was sidetracked for a while when he was drafted at age 18 and had to survive combat in World War II. After the war, he began to gain a little traction in his career by working his way up as a singer, appearing in clubs around New York until he was spotted one night by Bob Hope. Hope gave him a part in his stage show and also suggested he simplify his name, so Anthony Benedetto became Tony Bennett.

Around 1950 he signed a record contract, and within a year began topping the charts with hits such as "Because Of You", followed up by "Cold, Cold Heart", a Hank Williams tune that certainly sounded a little different with the Bennett treatment. Later hits included "Stranger In Paradise" and "Rags To Riches". All during the 1950s he continued to churn out hit and after hit, but as rock and roll began to ascend in popularity there was a loss in momentum for many other kinds of music. Tony was still popular but he felt the effects and started trying some different things.

He decided to lean a little closer to jazz by teaming up with various musicians, most memorably the Count Basie big band, which also filled an empty spot in Tony's resume. Having come up through the clubs, he hadn't really performed as a band vocalist too often, but it was a natural fit and they made many outstanding recordings. One of my favorites is the Cole Porter standard, "Anything Goes". Tony's strong young voice backed up by Basie's driving beat is a real treat for the ears.

In the 1960s, Tony cooled off a little but continued to be a solid success in both album sales and personal appearances, mostly as a pop standards singer. It was during this time that the song most identified with him – you know, that one about Frisco – was first recorded, and ironically was a little slow to take off. Eventually though, the album earned him Grammys for record of the year and male vocal solo.

In the years since, he's continued performing and recording and has reached legendary status. Tony Bennett — sixty years of excellence and still going strong.

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