Arts Remembrance: Tony Bennett, R.I.P.

By Steve Provizer

Tony Bennett was not only a singular artist. He was, by all accounts, a mensch: an early supporter of the civil rights struggle and participant in innumerable benefit shows, he was a generous mentor.

Some singers are tuned into the zeitgeist; a few are able to drag the zeitgeist along with them. Tony Bennett did his best to ignore fashion, but gravitational forces are always at play. He was drawn to jazz, but the ’50s, when Bennett began his career, were not the ’40’s. The era when Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and a large cohort of singers could thrive performing jazz was over. Surviving in the music business meant negotiating between “pop” and “jazz” singing. So, over the decades, Bennett played a kind of aesthetic hide-and-seek with the culture. While maintaining his creative core, he adapted just enough to ride with cultural shifts. With one exception — the late ’60s and early ’70s — Bennett was always able to find the sweet spot between pop and jazz.

His first commercial recording, made under the name Joe Bari in 1949, demonstrated this negotiation clearly. The record had “Fascinating Rhythm” on one side. On the B-side, there was“Vieni Qui,” a duet with Pat Easton, ex of Woody Herman. It was in the tradition of Italo-American songs like “Domani” and “That’s Amore.” (The first recording of any kind we have of Bennett is a 1946 air check from Armed Forces Radio. He convincingly sings “St. James Infirmary”).

Bennett’s 1950 demo of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” got him signed to Columbia Records. Bennett crossed swords with producer Mitch Miller, but the latter had his hand on the pulse of the commercial taste of ’50s America. Over the next few years, he and Bennett produced a bunch of hits: “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Rags to Riches,” “Stranger in Paradise,” and “Just in Time.”

Bennett simultaneously pursued a jazz direction, and in 1954 he made Chuck Wayne, one of the foremost jazz guitarists of the ’40s-’50s, his music director. That year, with Miller producing, they recorded Cloud 7, with Dave Schildkraut on alto saxophone and Charles Panely on trumpet. In 1957 pianist-arranger Ralph Sharon, who was to stay with Bennett for the next several decades (with a short hiatus), replaced Wayne as musical director. They released The Beat of My Heart, with Herbie Mann, Al Cohn, Nat Adderley, and percussionists Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Candido, and Chico Hamilton. In 1959, Bennett became the vocalist for Count Basie’s band and they recorded Basie Swings, Bennett Sings, In Person, and Strike Up the Band for Roulette records.

While all this jazz was happening, Bennett also had eight songs in the Billboard Top 40, including a piece of pseudo-Hawaiian cheese, “In the Middle of an Island,” that reached number nine in 1957.

He was thriving in the early ’60s — a presence on TV, appearing in a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall and nightclubs, hitting it big with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Then the Beatles-folk-psychedelia tsunami crashed, washing away the collective hipness of Bennett, Sinatra, and company. This commenced the only extended period during which Bennett found himself outside the sweet spot. His reduced circumstances were such that in 1969 Bennett capitulated to Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records, and recorded Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! an abominable artistic and commercial failure.

He was dropped by Columbia and then Verve records. In 1973, he started Improv records. The company couldn’t get a distribution deal so it folded in 1977. Still, during that period, Bennett produced two of the most astonishing vocal records in the history of jazz: The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976). These recordings are unalloyed renderings of a distinctive vision: no rhythm section, and pianist and vocalist are complete equals. The considerable charms of these albums have not faded in the last 50 years.

Tony Bennett performing with Bill Evans in 1980. Photo: Tom Copi

By 1979, Bennett was not just dallying with cocaine. He was in a big financial hole when his son Danny signed on to be his manager. Danny straightened out his father’s finances and reunited his father with pianist Ralph Sharon. He started booking Bennett at colleges and small theaters, placing him back onto late night and other television shows. Danny must have noticed that young people were rediscovering Lounge Music and the Rat Pack through such performers as Buster Poindexter and Pink Martini. He presciently got his dad on MTV award shows and MTV Unplugged, where he hooked up with the likes of Elvis Costello and K.D. Laing.

Collaboration albums with a number of popular artists cemented his position in the pop-jazz sweet spot. He was many years older than his collaborators and his avuncular mentoring style was noted, appreciated, and deepened the public’s affection for him. He recorded prolifically and went from success to success, selling 10 million albums when he was in his 80s.

Bennett’s early lessons in bel canto technique served him well. He sang in a wide dynamic range in all registers: for a remarkably long period of time his voice remained malleable and stable. It was only in his mid-80s that his vocals became more gravelly and quavery. Through it all, his stage persona made audiences comfortable. He was professional, but not mannered. His appreciation for his fellow musicians was palpable. His hand gestures were those of an amateur performer, but somehow they came off as unaffected and sincere rather than awkward. His smile seemed genuine and his belief in the lyrics of a song unassailable.

Tony Bennett was not only a singular artist. He was, by all accounts, a mensch: an early supporter of the civil rights struggle and participant in innumerable benefit shows, he was a generous mentor. With his partner Susan he endowed the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. If he had negative thoughts about others, he kept them to himself. He did his damnedest to stick to performing music he thought had lasting value. He deserves all the accolades that have come his way.

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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