This writer’s gratitude for the life of Tony Bennett is directly related to what was his single-minded mission, artistically speaking, and that was to spread the love of the kind of music he loved to sing, that which we call The Great American Songbook; the songs of Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein, and a great band of others who may not be household names but whose songs have assuredly been heard in almost every house. He could never have dreamed he’d still be doing it with substantial success into his 90s. But on the other hand, being Tony, maybe he did. Looking back, it appears nothing was ever going to stop him except the hand of God Himself.
Being a devoted child of the pop-rock era, it was not until my mid-20s (in the mid-1990s) that I first started listening to Tony’s kind of music. It was easy for types like me to be drawn first to the cool of cats like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby (with the sense of an ounce or two of kitsch in the mix). But listening on that level didn’t get me to comprehend The Songbook. Around that time, Tony Bennett recorded his album Perfectly Frank; it was his take on 24 songs Sinatra had previously recorded, accompanied in this case by just the piano, bass and percussion of the Ralph Sharon Trio. Hearing him sing these tunes differently—and at the same time so well—began to open my mind to the durability and depth of the songs. “One for My Baby” can be sung up-tempo? There was also the blessing of being able to see Bennett sing live around that same time, at New York’s Apollo Theater and at Radio City Music Hall, stages which he certainly could own.
From there, for me, the journey into the music was further advanced by the great Verve songbook albums, with singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Blossom Dearie to Mel Tormé delivering their varied takes on the works of particular songsmiths. I was hooked, and completely absorbed into that music to the exclusion of any other for quite some time. There was so much to find and explore. It was exhilarating.
Tony Bennett himself was still making wonderful albums, like Steppin’ Out, Tony Bennett on Holiday, and then there was his older work to discover. The vigor and power of his early records was mindblowing; like The Beat of My Heart (1957), When Lights Are Low(1964) and Tony Makes It Happen (1967).
It was not long after that last one that Columbia Records decided Tony wasn’t making it happen enough in terms of record sales in the era of free love, and pressured him to record more contemporary material. Probably everyone has heard the story of how, after being compelled to record some Beatles tunes, he left the studio and vomited. Everyone knows it because Tony himself told the story. He got away (ultimately) with saying the sainted Lennon and McCartney were only good as emetics because of his total dedication to his own standard of taste. He just stuck with it. He left Columbia and had his kind of wilderness years in the 1970s and 80s, and then, with the canny marketing help of his son Danny and just his own continued devotion to the music he loved, he made it all happen again and became the toast of the MTV generation. In doing so, he truly became an irresistible ambassador for that music.
My own favorite album of his (originally two LPs) was actually recorded during those wilderness years, on the Improv label. It’s Tony Bennett Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook, which I’ve written about previously. With the unusual backing of the Ruby Braff (on trumpet)/George Barnes (on guitar) Quartet, Tony’s voice comes down just enough—maybe half a notch—so that it floats above the bed of their smart and insouciant accompaniment. The love that Bennett has for the songs fairly overflows from the grooves. It’s unsurpassable stuff.
Tony Bennett was more complex than the smiling image he projected, as covered in David Evanier’s excellent biography of him, All the Things You Are, which I reviewed in this space. Yet he’ll be remembered most for his simple and undying love for that timeless Great American Songbook, and his indefatigable application of the gifts God gave him to spread the joy he found in it to others, all over the world.
May he rest in peace.