Arts Remembrance: Tony Bennett (1926-2023)

By Daniel Gewertz

Tony Bennett’s enthusiasm for life and music is persuasive, even when it seems outsized.

Tony Bennett. Wiki Common

Physically, the closest I came to Tony Bennett was when he walked through the cramped center aisle of Central Square’s Middle East Restaurant, on his way to sing a benefit show in the unlikely setting of that venue’s basement nightclub. He came in the Mass. Ave. entrance with a flourish, waving, smiling broadly, accepting the diners’ instant applause with aplomb. “Hey there,” he shouted above the din, looking gleeful, like he truly loved the adoration. The surprise was what the septuagenarian star wore: a black leather jacket, in a semi-motorcycle style. Somebody must have tipped him off about where he was playing, and he dressed accordingly.

Few stars wore celebrity as easily as did Anthony Dominick Benedetto of Queens, New York.

I reviewed Bennett performances at various New England settings, including the Newport Jazz Festival, Symphony Hall, and the Fan Pier pavilion. At the latter venue, I recall a time fairly early in the show that I came to know as the essential Bennett moment. Even early in his career, his voice was never a big one, but by his 70s it was often hoarse. He paced himself by half-talking some verses. A few songs into the show I began to worry that his grainy voice wasn’t up to the task, that it might falter and fade. But, as he arrived toward the end of a Gershwin song, his voice busted out with a much stronger tone, and the crowd yipped their approval. And then, the ultimate Bennett moment: he catapulted into a series of piercing triumphant vocal peaks that caused the crowd to literally howl in relief and excitation. It was the Bennett surprise, repeated many times per show.

It was like the aging ballet dancer’s perfect landing of a fearless leap; the old, knocked-down boxing champ leaping up from the canvas at the count of eight. Over and over in the latter part of his career he defined the word “bravura.” And the unique technical accomplishment didn’t waver: his voice remained hoarse — more of a shout than a rounded tone. But it still grew bigger and bigger, and of course, as it had to be, perfectly on key. Rising to the moment became his go-to move, in concert and in life.

In the popular American consciousness, there has long been a batch of specialties where there’s only room for one famous act at the top. A mime couldn’t become “world renowned” as long as Marcel Marceau was still performing. Norman Mailer couldn’t become the archetypal tough guy novelist until Ernest Hemingway was gone. Modern abstract painters? There was only one: Picasso. So, by the late 20th century in America, only Sinatra was The Voice, The Legend. For classic pop singers of the Great American Songbook, Sinatra was it, no matter how unsure his voice grew, or even his ability to read lyrics off a teleprompter. His last shows were in the mid-’90s. It was perfect timing for Bennett. His career zoomed up as Sinatra’s voice was fading out. And, unlike Sinatra, Bennett seemed to genuinely like people and enjoyed sharing his stage with younger performers such as Diana Krall. And, ultimately Lady Gaga. While his vocal fervor can sometimes be a bit much on record, in concert his love of life was fully persuasive. He might have cut a thoughtful jazz album with the meditative pianist Bill Evans. But live, subtlety was, happily, not his style.

He was well known as a painter. It was neither a hobby nor a star’s conceit. It wasn’t just a way to cool down from the rigors of a tour. The one time I interviewed him, by phone, his tone became most effusive when he talked of what painting has meant to him.

Tony Bennett performing in 1966. Photo: Wiki Common

His at times giddy enthusiasm for songwriters and musicians could be heard in the way he shouted their names at the climax of certain songs. Sometimes he shouted out a name of another singer who might have once inspired him. I recall that David Letterman once joked about that odd habit with his bandleader Paul Shaffer, mocking the way Bennett had recently shouted out “Ray Charles!” at the end of a song with seemingly no musical connection. It was a typical Letterman gibe, but it was also the only time I heard condescension tossed Bennett’s way.

The performer’s enthusiasm for life and music was persuasive, even when it seemed outsized. He was no sideshow barker. His love of life was real. And Bennett singing well with Lady Gaga near the end of his Alzheimer’s-stricken life seemed to be the kind of miracle bestowed upon one of life’s true believers. I know there’s a medical explanation, but it still smacked of the miraculous. At a time when he couldn’t remember anything in life but song lyrics, he gave the world the perfect valentine farewell.

Bennett’s longevity in show biz was formidable. As Bruce Weber wrote in the New York Times, he sang with Rosemary Clooney when she was in her 20s, and with Celine Dion when she was in her 20s. He survived the rule of Columbia’s Mitch Miller when he forced cheesy, gimmicky songs on both Bennett and Clooney. He survived the late ’60s, when he was told to record soft-rock material. He was able, ultimately, to get back to his true musical loves, the Gershwin brothers and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

On the album Steppin’ Out, he sings Gershwin’s “Who Cares?,” which has the line “Life is one long jubilee.” He’s one of the few singers who could carry off that sentiment. Today I listened to that song, and it seemed fitting that he says to his band at the very end — “Hey, fellas, take me home.”

Daniel Gewertz has been influenced by the people he has interviewed for newspapers and radio, including jazz artists Ray Charles, Sonny Rollins, Artie Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Jay McShann, Gil Evans, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, Steve Swallow, J.J. Johnson and Milt Jackson; roots musicians B.B. King, Bill Monroe, Brownie McGhee, Vassar Clements, Phil Everly, Roger Miller, Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley; folkies Libba Cotton, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Rambling Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Steve Goodman and John Prine; classic popsters Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Eartha Kitt and Pearl Bailey; and film/theater artists Louie Malle, Edward Albee, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Susan Anspach, Yul Brynner, Michael Douglas, Diahann Carroll, Jewel, Jack Klugman and John Sayles. Daniel’s first live interview, at age 16, was with Art Garfunkel in 1966.

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