All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett by David Evanier

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. Continue readingAll the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett by David Evanier”

Tony Bennett and the Incoherence of Pacifism

The Cinch Review

In an interview with Howard Stern the other day, the 85 year-old singer Tony Bennett made some statements about September 11th, 2001, for instance:

“But who are the terrorists? Are we the terrorists or are they the terrorists? Two wrongs don’t make a right,” and, “They flew the plane in, but we caused it. Because we were bombing them and they told us to stop.”

The obvious response to this is to say that Tony Bennett should stick to singing, and to talking about music. In those areas he’s pretty smart. In terms of politics, simply put, he’s always been a liberal wacko. When asked the kinds of questions Stern asked, Bennett is guaranteed to show his wackiness. He also said, maybe most absurdly of all, that President George W. Bush had confided in him at the White House that the war in Iraq had been “a mistake.”

Bennett has now apologized to an extent for what he said about 9/11. (He does have a new album to promote, after all.) He has said:

There is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3,000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country. My life experiences — ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to marching with Martin Luther King — made me a lifelong humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior.

I am sorry if my statements suggested anything other than an expression of my love for my country, my hope for humanity and my desire for peace throughout the world.

As he says there and has said elsewhere, his experiences fighting during World War II made him a pacifist. Pacifism is a position that inevitably distorts one’s way of looking at things. Writing about Bennett before (on the subject of his penchant for singing “America the Beautiful” in place of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) I quoted passages from his memoir regarding his war experiences and the horror of war instilled in him then. I also said that the following passage from his own book is the best answer to those—like himself—who maintain that wars should never be fought.

It was gratifying that the last official mission of the 255th Regiment was the liberation of the concentration camp in the town of Landsberg. It was thirty miles south of the notorious Dachau camp, on the opposite bank of the Lech River, which we were approaching. The river was treacherous and difficult to cross because there were still German soldiers protecting it, but we wouldn’t let anyone stop us from freeing those prisoners. Many writers have recorded what it was like in the concentration camps much more eloquently than I ever could, so I won’t even try to describe it. Just let me say I’ll never forget the desperate faces and empty stares of the prisoners as they wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds. Once we took possession of the camp, we immediately got food and water to the survivors, but they had been brutalized for so long that at first they couldn’t believe that we were there to help them and not to kill them. Many of the survivors were barely able to stand. To our horror we discovered that all of the women and children had been killed long before our arrival and that just the day before, half of the remaining survivors had been shot … The whole thing was beyond comprehension. After seeing such horrors with my very eyes, it angers me that some people insist there were no concentration camps.

Deciding not to fight and not to support those who do—deciding to allow a great evil to proceed because of one’s own desire to maintain a pacifist principle—is not a morally defensible choice. It is a kind of moral preening, a dangerous sort of insularity. But as I wrote then:

So, next time you hear Tony Bennett crooning a cheerful song on the radio, remember that 18 or 19 year-old kid who was there when it counted, and who, despite his terror, helped free those concentration camp victims, and helped put an end to the Nazis and to World War II.

Way to go, Tony.

Better to give him credit for what he did, and to remember his best years of singing, than to dwell on his flawed perspective on politics, war and peace.

Tony Bennett Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook

Tony Bennett Rodgers and Hart Songbook

Tony Bennett Rodgers and Hart Songbook

Tony Bennett isn’t very well known for whispering. He’s a big singer—not in the sense that he over sings, but he certainly is known for the power to belt it out above muscular backing bands, and through his career he’s done plenty of that, and to good effect. And even in the plethora of latter day albums he made with the Ralph Sharon Trio, there’s a sense of grandeur to the backing that belies the actual simplicity of piano, bass and drums, and Tony often sings on those albums as if in front of a big orchestra. And that’s something in itself. But for true flat-out intimacy, there’s nothing he’s ever done that exceeds the Rodgers and Hart Songbook.

In 1973, Bennett saw trumpeter Ruby Braff and guitarist George Barnes leading a quartet in New York, with Wayne Wright on another guitar and John Giuffrida on bass. He sat in with them live, it went well, and one thing led to another. They went into the studio and over the course of a few days recorded twenty songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

The combination of musicians, material and singer proved fortuitous if not magical. The end result, and a gift for posterity, is an album of supremely tasteful and truly adult popular music.

The greatest Rodgers and Hart songs are remarkable concoctions of wit, melody, insouciance and poignancy. Richard Rodgers is always rated as one of the greatest melodists of American popular song. Although he is probably better known today for his later and grander-sounding work with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, his melodies on the songs he wrote with Hart possess intimacy, beauty and playfulness in keeping with the lyrics. Larry Hart was, we are led to believe, a rather tortured and lonely soul (who died aged 48 shortly after one of his not uncommon alcohol binges) but his mastery of rhyme and his ability to mix sly and urbane humor with soul-baring sensitivity make him one of the very finest wordsmiths of the past century of popular music.

Who else has ever written as delightfully disrespectful a discourse on love as “I Wish I Were In Love Again” (from the 1937 show “Babes In Arms”)?

When love congeals
it soon reveals
the faint aroma
of performing seals
The double-crossing
of a pair of heels
I wish I were in love again

And who else has ever written as romantic a dismissal of romantic cliché as the beguiling “My Romance” (from the 1935 show “Jumbo”)?

My romance
doesn’t have to have a moon
in the sky
My romance
doesn’t need a blue lagoon
standing by

No month of May,
no twinkling stars
no hideaway
no soft guitars

Wide awake
I can make my most fantastic dreams come true
My romance doesn’t need a thing but you

On this album, the voice of Tony Bennett, the cornet of Ruby Braff and the guitar of George Barnes do not simply play through the songs, but rather engage with each other in a friendly, bantering and often sensual trialogue, illuminating the textures of music and words with exquisite nuance.

Tony Bennett was far from experiencing a commercial peak at this stage of his career, but there’s no reaching for the pop-charts here; the singer and the musicians seem to be doing just exactly what they want to do, their approach dictated solely by their own taste and ability. I suspect this happens even more rarely than one might think.

It makes for a timeless masterpiece, and, in my belief, a quite singular monument to the art of American popular song. All it took was three days in 1973, a set of great songs, a singer and a few musicians who understood and loved the material and comprehended the way in which their own talents could best shine alongside it. Nice work, guys.

Rating: Ten out of ten lead pipes.
10 Out Of 10 Lead Pipes
It’s a lead-pipe cinch!

Originally, these recordings were released as two separate LPs of ten songs each, but at the time of writing they’re available together on one CD, augmented by six alternate takes: Tony Bennett Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook

In addition, the Rodgers and Hart recordings are available as part of a very fine boxed set called Tony Bennett: The Complete Improv Recordings

Tony Bennett, the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful”

The Cinch Review

After playing Tony Bennett’s record, Rags To Riches, on his XM radio show, Bob Dylan said, “I heard a story once about Tony. They wanted him to sing the national anthem at the nineteen and sixty-one Preakness. He didn’t want to. He said, ‘I don’t know. Bombs burstin’ in air are just not my thing.’” Dylan commented, “Way to go, Tony.”

That’s not exactly the comment I’d have made, but then it’s Bob’s show, and when I have my own XM Radio show, maybe I’ll pay a different kind of tribute to Tony — who I do think is one of the greatest singers of our era.

The question is, what is this thing with Tony Bennett and the national anthem all about? Like most things, it benefits from a little consideration. Continue reading “Tony Bennett, the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful””