I’ve recently read David Evanier’s All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett, and it seems to me that it will stand as the essential written reference point for anyone interested in this great American singer’s life and music. Of-course, being about the only proper biography written of Bennett (excluding his 1998 autobio The Good Life in collaboration with music-writer Will Friedwald) it lacks obvious competition. Nevertheless, this book is no knockoff, but an assiduously researched work by a writer completely engaged with his subject matter. It is far from an official biography and proceeds with that freedom; the aggressively private Bennett himself did not grant an interview and neither did some figures whom one could rate as key intimates of the singer, but out of a number of in-depth conversations with those individuals who did grant interviews, and a thorough marshaling of what is already public record, David Evanier has constructed an estimably credible and robust account of Bennett’s life and career.
When it comes to books on major figures in the entertainment world, you often have a dichotomy between those which focus on the famous individual’s personal life versus those which look at their art and life’s work with an appreciative eye. Evanier combines both approaches here, and, in addition to being the best way, objectively-speaking, of approaching the task, in Bennett’s case it also must be seen as the absolutely obligatory way. There could be no way of telling Tony Bennett’s life story in a meaningful way without getting to grips with his passionate devotion to his chosen musical form, and the full range of struggles and successes he has experienced in that realm.
Generally, Tony Bennett’s life has not greatly compelled the gossip columnists and scandal-mongers, unlike so many other larger-than-life figures in the entertainment world. For the public, it seems it has been enough to see and hear Tony Bennett singing his songs. This may explain why a biography of this scope is new. Yet, there are a number of things which are interesting about Bennett’s personality, and which this book illuminates. There are, for instance, his sharp edges, betrayed publicly sometimes in controversial comments in interviews. And there is also his unwavering (almost mono-maniacal) commitment to performing and championing the type of American popular song which he loves.
In terms of his sharp edges, the book offers some theories as to how they developed. A generally happy child, growing up in an Italian family in New York’s neighborhood of Astoria, he had a love and fascination with music and performing early on. When he was still ten years old, however, a major tragedy occurred in his world, that being the death of his father. This was compounded when, in an act of intended charity to temporarily ease life for his mother, his uncle Dominick took Tony to live in his home in upstate New York. A family friend recalls that he missed his mother and brother terribly, and came back changed. To this the friend attributes a deep insecurity in Tony that has led him to take offense unpredictably and cut people off in his personal life. Bennett, despite his sunny stage demeanor, also has acquired the reputation of being tough on his backing musicians—even at times to the point of a ranting and unwarranted abusiveness.
Another enormously formative experience for Tony Bennett was fighting in World War II. He was drafted at the age of 18 in 1944. He hated everything that followed. He hated being in the army, and has often recounted his disgust at the instances of racism and bigotry that he encountered. He was terrified and horror-stricken by the fighting itself in Europe. He came out of the army as a rather aggressive pacifist, and one with a highly-sharpened lens on injustice, and arguably something of a chip on his shoulder. On the one hand, he has always stood up strong for racial equality (up to and including marching in Alabama in 1965). On the other hand, there’s things like his refusal to sing the U.S. national anthem (it’s a “war song”) and his tendency to make comments like he did very recently to the effect that the United States caused Al-Qaeda to launch its attacks on September 11th, 2001. This is a side of Bennett that often jars the public when it reveals itself; it is so different to the face of the joyous performer we generally see.
As far as the Tony Bennett everyone loves goes, that one is unwaveringly focused on excellence in practicing his craft, and this may be traceable back to him watching his mother, who worked as a seamstress. She would refuse to work on a “cheap or badly conceived dress.” Bennett is quoted as saying that: “Many years later, when producers and record companies tried to tell me what type of songs to record, in the back of my mind I could see my mother tossing those dresses over her shoulder.” Bennett at times in his career has struggled to maintain the highest standards in the songs that he records, bumping heads with figures like Mitch Miller and Clive Davis, who always pushed him to record material they considered more sale-able. Bennett managed to coexist well enough with Mitch Miller, but when he had to deal with Clive Davis at Columbia in the late 1960s he had bouts of literally throwing up when compelled to record contemporary rock and pop songs that he felt were a betrayal of his art. It led ultimately to the one instance of violence attributed to Tony in this book. Derek Boulton, Bennett’s manager at the time, recounts how, circa 1971, he negotiated a new contract for Tony at Columbia, one which he thought was very favorable indeed. Tony, when it was handed to him, ripped it up, notwithstanding that it was as thick as a small phone-book. In a meeting later on intended to clinch the deal, when the CBS lawyer said, “I’m so glad you’re going to stay with us,” Bennett is reported to have “socked [him] in the jaw.” Bennett said goodbye to Columbia at that point and (although he returned to the label years later) has never since had anything like the struggles to chart his own artistic course that he experienced back then.
To me, the most inspiring part of Tony Bennett’s story and indeed of this book is that story of his great latter day renaissance. It would take all day to count the lounge singers and such that peaked in the 1950s or early 1960s and seemed then to go quietly into that good night. Bennett, despite his pacifism, has been a warrior for his own sake and in particular for the sake of his craft and the music that he loves. What he required for his comeback was a good general to take over strategy, and this he found in his son Danny, who Bennett put in charge of his business affairs in the early 1980s, when he was deeply in debt and at an extremely low ebb. Danny had the sense to realize that Tony should just do what he does best: concentrate on making excellent music exactly how he liked to make it, while Danny focused on getting him in front of new and younger audiences. It was a combined strategy of small group performances at New York jazz clubs to appearances at pop music events where someone of Tony’s age and musical background would otherwise never be seen. Bennett played along in incongruous contexts, apparently unafraid of being seen as kitsch, trusting that the quality of what he did would shine through. Meanwhile, he worked at recording a series of albums from The Art Of Excellence in 1986 to Perfectly Frank in 1992 that easily stand among the best of his career. It all came together and paid off, and since the early 1990s Bennett has essentially had it made, and has enjoyed the longest period of uninterrupted success of his career. He’s taken care of his voice and has succeeded in singing into his eighties at a level that is all but unprecedented for singers of his kind. This biography also delves into Bennett’s passion for another art, painting, which has formed a constant in his life and in which area he’s had some not inconsiderable success as well.
There’s more in the book that can be counted as revelatory, considering how relatively below-the-radar Bennett has kept things. For instance, his turbulent marriages (until apparently his current one to longtime girlfriend Susan Crow), his entanglement with and ultimate escape from the power of mobsters who were tied up with his corner of the entertainment industry, his years of drug abuse, and on.
Yet, if Bennett should feel his privacy violated by this unofficial biography, he really ought to instead be very grateful for the writer who took on the task, because David Evanier is clearly a dedicated fan, and never goes out of his way to make Bennett look bad or to focus on tawdriness or sensationalism.
Where I would personally differ with the writer most often is actually in his level of enthusiasm for Bennett’s work, although I definitely count myself a fan. There is, for instance, this shadow of Frank Sinatra that’s inevitably always hung over Tony Bennett, and it seems to me that Mr. Evanier tries by the end of the book to establish the sense that Bennett has in fact reached Sinatra’s level or inherited his mantle, so to speak. I don’t think so, myself. They are different, enough so that perhaps the comparisons are vain, but I believe in the end Sinatra made the more truly timeless and great music, despite Bennett’s superior vocal strength and loyalty to taste in his later years. At one point in this book, the writer looks in detail at a concept album Tony Bennett made in the 1950s (when Sinatra was making some of his greatest concept or thematic albums) called Hometown, My Town. He rightly praises it for its strong material, sparkling musicianship, Ralph Burns’ smart orchestrations, and Tony’s tremendous singing. If I didn’t already have the record myself, after reading the description of it here I would move mountains to get it. And indeed it’s well worth having. Yet, I think there’s a reason that Bennett’s Hometown, My Town is out of print, and has never been issued on CD, while Sinatra’s albums of that period have always been available. Each track of Bennett’s album is dynamite, on its own. But as a concept I just don’t think the album works. The narrative which the song cycle is supposed to tell simply doesn’t come across. I think that one would only know that there was an intended narrative by reading the liner notes. Otherwise one would think it’s just a collection of great songs, well performed. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with having a career of great songs, well performed. It’s actually not that easy to do at all, as this book tells, and Bennett has done it with verve and courage and dedication. His love for the songs he sings is one of the elements that comes across most clearly in his style of performance. His voice can just drip with reverence for great and beautiful music. Sinatra, in my perception, took things elsewhere to a greater extent and made songs his own, almost as if he were composing them freshly, and consistently made the connection with his listeners on a more deep and personal level. Yet, it’s no terrible knock to say that a singer hasn’t reached the level of Sinatra.
Tony Bennett is quoted as saying that if he had been a singing waiter all of his life (one of his early jobs) he’d have been happy. If you believe him, you have to think that he feels extraordinarily blessed to have been able instead to share his singing and his love of music with the entire world. The world, without question, has been blessed by it.
All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett is written by David Evanier; 352 pages, published by Wiley.
A few of my own favorite Tony Bennett albums are below: