In Tony Bennett We Trust
A reflection on the passing of a master of pure song
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This edition’s essay offers some thoughts on Tony Bennett, focusing on a few moments in a career that spanned almost three-quarters of a century. Needless to say, it only scratches the surface of why Bennett was one of our most important singers and artists but I do hope you enjoy it.
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Tony Bennett was both larger than life and one of us. He was someone as likely to grace the great concert stages of the world as to spend an afternoon in Central Park painting a scene he had scoped out from his apartment window overlooking the south entrance of the Park.
I’ll confess I had always hoped to have stumbled upon him while on a long walk in the Park. First, in the distance, there would be a gentleman—curly haired with those unmistakable cheekbones, paintbrush in hand, easel in front, engrossed in his work—and then, as I got closer, realizing that our greatest living singer was, like any other dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, finding inspiration in the Park. I’d like to think that as I got closer, I would work up the nerve to call out, “Hey, Mr. Bennett, nice to see you,” or simply act cool and unaffected as if it’s just another day sharing the space with Tony Bennett, but it’s all wishful thinking probably. More likely, it would have been impossible to say anything, the onrush of the totality of everything that he has meant, the arc of a career that spanned America from the Second World War and everything afterwards, would preclude anything other than silently thinking that for all the troubles of the world, all the ways in which they elicit despair and hopelessness, there would be consolation that Tony Bennett is still here, it’s not all so bad.
It’s admittedly foolish to have believed, as I most assuredly did, that Bennett would have lived forever, particularly when it was revealed that he had Alzheimer’s, but still, the news on the morning of July 21 that Bennett had passed stung. There is no doubt that his sheer longevity, not simply in terms of living to the age of 96 but sustaining a career as a pop singer long past the setting of the glorious golden age of such artistry, contributed to the overflow of emotion. It also had to do with Bennett being the last of the dynasty of Italian balladeers (I hesitate to use the word crooner) that included Vic Damone, Frankie Laine, Louis Prima, Al Martino, Jerry Vale, Perry Como, Dean Martin and the Chairman of them all, Frank Sinatra, that formed a bedrock of many a family’s record collection and listening on their hi-fi. And while there are still a few living links to the heyday of sophisticated pop singing centred on the Great American Songbook—I especially note here Johnny Mathis—the loss of Bennett certainly brings the end of an era ever closer.
Era is probably not the best word to use here for Bennett’s place in the public consciousness. He was almost always a contemporary artist and his career spanned three-quarters of a century. Even Sinatra, at some point, became more of a nostalgia act than a singer of the here and now. But, at a time when grunge was king and alternative rock was on the rise, Bennett went on MTV’s Unplugged in the spring of 1994 to proclaim to those who felt unaffected by Pearl Jam or the Smashing Pumpkins (back then, one’s social standing was especially connected to the music one liked) that it was not only OK but cool to find him with Ralph Sharon, his long-time pianist, and the rest of his trio: Doug Richeson on bass and Clayton Cameron on drums, more resonant or, maybe more pointedly, hopeful in offering the promise of a release from the years of teenage angst, a day where “they’ll be smooth sailing ’cause I’m trimmin’ my sails / with my top hot, my white tie and my tails” as Fred Astaire once sang on ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby.’ And it’s that sense of adult wisdom, offered with the hope and geniality of a treasured grandfather, that remains intact upon revisiting Bennett’s landmark performance, which netted him a Best Album of the Year Grammy, and solidified a renaissance that began in the mid eighties, all these years later.
Beyond the nifty performance of ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby,’ punctuated with such hip and bright colourations by Sharon, there is a thrilling ‘Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)’ in which Bennett has his microphone turned off and engages in a demonstration of his preternatural ability to project his voice, a tender ‘Speak Low’ with Bennett’s unerring sense of time and two very different shadings of the the word “thief” in “love is pure gold and time’s a thief” and with k.d. Lang, he digs into the languid leap of ‘Moonglow.’ There’s also a survey of the hits: ‘When Joanna Loved Me,’ ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’ ‘I Wanna Be Around,’ ‘The Good Life’ and, all the way back to the beginning, ‘Rags to Riches,’ one of a series of dramatic showpieces in which Bennett seemed to capture the striving of the post-war era. No wonder it was used to open Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece Goodfellas.
Bennett’s métier was not destined to be faux-operatic ballads. It would be found instead in a precise control as he wrangled his instrument into a finely honed vehicle of pure song. Listening to his early long-players for Columbia offer hints: his delicate reading of the verse of ‘Give Me a Simple Life,’ from 1955’s Cloud 7, the transformation from the cheery shuffle to the jazz gallop on ‘Let’s Begin,’ powered by Art Blakey on drums, from 1957’s The Beat of My Heart and then there's 1959’s Hometown, My Town.
Just six songs comprising 27 minutes of music, the album may be seem inconsequential (Spotify embarrassingly lists it as an EP) but it’s anything but. Loosely about the ups and downs of being in and out of love in New York, Hometown, My Town’s triumph centres on three long-form performances: ‘The Skyscraper Blues,’ ‘Penthouse Serenade’ and ‘I Cover the Waterfront.’ They soar both because of Bennett and because of Ralph Burns, an arranger of vivid technicolour in sound who is somewhat forgotten these days and sadly so.
The introduction to ‘The Skyscraper Blues,’ full of the clamorous and the glamorous chaos of the Big Apple, has Bennett in full bravado exclaiming, “the Empire State / the RCA / the Chrysler Building so tall / and grey,” and then, in a twist, Burns switches on a dime to a noirish sonority. Bennett shelves his ebullience for a weariness centred a certain type of Manhattan solitude: “when you’re walking down the street / in New York / and you haven’t got a friend in town / then a funny thing can happen / a funny thing can happen / when you look at all the buildings all around.” It’s close and direct, you can feel the cold in the air, see as Bennett walks down Broadway, his hands digging into his trench-coat pocket trying to mitigate the cold, crisp, unfriendly air. The extended instrumental coda by Burns furthers the mood of desolation in the middle of the greatest city in the world.
‘Penthouse Serenade’ is the other side of that equation: contented companionship in the middle of the greatest city in the world. In the opening verse, two of Bennett’s gifts—on the surface, almost contradictory—come to the fore: a broad, thick tone and a tender delivery. Bennett lovingly paints the scene: an apartment, or more accurately, an idyll, with the Park, the Hudson and Riverside Drive all below. Burns’ concluding instrumental chorus accentuates the bliss, calling to mind at one moment another serenade, of Glenn Miller and moonlight.
On ‘I Cover the Waterfront,’ Bennett aces Edward Heyman’s gorgeous lyrics in the verse (here’s a sample: “away from the city that hurts and mocks / I’m standing alone by the desolate docks”), marshalling his technique with dynamic control, rising and falling like the waves lapping against the harbour wall.
Hometown, My Town, in many ways, ushered in a golden age for Bennett. The only singer who would top him for the sheer consistency of the quality of his records was Sinatra (though, memorably, Sinatra himself was quoted as saying Bennett was the best singer bar none) but, Sinatra could not match him for his willingness to go beyond the formula of the pop long-player: a singer fronting an orchestra (brass and horns or strings or both), arranged and conducted by one of the top-flight chart writers and featuring a program of standards. On one album, Bennett was accompanied by only Sharon; on another, When Lights Are Low, it’s just Sharon with Hal Gaylord on bass and Billy Exiner on drums.
While Bennett always claimed that he was a singer who liked jazz and not a jazz singer, an album like When Lights Are Low persuasively argues that it was modesty and not fact that drove Bennett’s characterization. His ease throughout—the relaxed, on-the-fly ambience suggests a late-night set in a half-empty jazz club, the tourists and curious long gone to bed, only the inveterate night hawks and jazz buffs remaining—dominates. The title track is like a whisper between lovers swaying together on an impromptu dance floor. Hear how achingly sincere he is as he sings, “dear, we’re so close together / I love you so.” The rest of the album may be less definitive, but something like the brief, almost tossed-off ‘It Could Happen to You,’ set against the bassline from Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s smash interpretation of ‘Desafinado,’ sets Bennett apart from his peers.
He also, as the late sixties arrived and the market for his type of music dried up, put up a much stronger resistance than most of his peers to taking on the hits of the day. In one important instance for Bennett, it appeared to be the other way around when his version of ‘For Once In My Life’ hit the charts before Stevie Wonder’s smash. But Bennett did eventually capitulate and Tony Sings the Hits of Today! so irked him that he essentially disowned the collection. Listened with fresh ears, it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation may suggest, particularly on a swinging version of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ (a song particularly well suited to pop-jazz interpretations), and well-honed and considered readings of Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ and George Harrison’s ‘Something.’ That recording was repeated on a follow-up collection, Tony Bennett’s “Something,” that stands out as a peerless fusion of orchestral pop with contemporary songwriting—a highlight being a drawn-out ‘Wave’ that caresses Jobim’s luminous melody. Bennett’s vocal is rich and deep. He was at the peak of his powers.
He had been for several years, starting a run of superb albums beginning with Who Can I Turn To. The first three, including as well If I Ruled the World: Songs for the Jet Set and The Movie Song Album, are especially strong. They brim with the care and craft that elevated the best of the pop recordings of the fifties and the sixties, transforming 12-inch, double-sided pieces of vinyl into texts that turned houses into homes.
There’s both a diversity of repertoire—standards like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ There’s a Lull in My Life’ and ‘The Trolley Song’ alongside letter-known pieces like Mel Tormé’s finger-snapping ‘Got the Gate on the Golden Gate’ from his California Suite, Bill Evans’ poignant ‘Waltz for Debby’ with Gene Lees’ lyrics added and Quincy Jones’ title theme, with lyrics by Jack Lawrence, to The Pawnbroker—and approaches—a full-on Ray Conniff-like chorus is employed on the travelogue of ‘Song of the Jet’ and it’s just Joe Morsala on clarinet and Bobby Hackett on ukulele for ‘Sweet Lorraine.’ And no one has negotiated ‘Girl Talk’ with such sublime balance, dimming the casual sexism in favour of a paean to Albert Camus’ pronouncement that “women are all we know of paradise on this earth.”
One could have all three albums and be well-stocked on the joys of Bennett. But that would be both getting and missing the point. The Bennett oeuvre is as deep as it is wide. One would be hard pressed to name an artist who kept making music of deep quality for so long. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Willie Nelson, to name three, will need to go for another decade until they top Bennett's longevity.
On the evening that he passed, PBS shared a clip of an interview he gave in which he said, in part:
“What I dislike is, Madison Avenue is out of touch with the public. They think you have to play to a 14-year-old level to communicate. You gotta be very commercial. They’ll tell you that right away. … So you make money. And so you’re popular for about a year and a half, but then what happens after that? … But for an artist to sustain, just like a Johnny Carson on television, he was always quality, you know. He always wore a tie. He always had a great big band, the best musicians in America, and he clowned around and he made fun of you. But at the end of the interview, he made everybody look good. He never really insulted anybody ever, all the time that he was on. So what is it? It’s this care that creates the longevity.”
On an album he made in 2015 with the pianist Bill Charlap with his trio of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington of selections from the Jerome Kern songbook, ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ was included. As on the rest of the album, Bennett sings the words, in this case, from the pen of Johnny Mercer, directly, sincerely, including these six words: “this year’s fancies are passing fancies.”
It sums up, at least for me, why Tony Bennett will remain cherished. It’s a reminder that, in a day where authentic or even just human-driven creativity has never been more imperiled, genuine artistry comes from the heart and from the soul.
I’m planning to be in beloved New York for a week this November and will probably be in Central Park each day while I’m there. When Bennett turned 95, a bench near the south entrance of the Park was dedicated to him. I’m going to stop by, hopefully grab a seat and sit for a while and be glad, reflecting on how lucky we were to have had Tony Bennett here for so long.