By Jonathan Schwartz
A citizen of music turned 80 several months ago. He was celebrated with unusual affection, and a TV show in honor of a new album (Duets: An American Classic) drew rave reviews. He appeared everywhere, it seems, to be interviewed and extolled. During Christmas, you'd hear his voice in delis and pizzerias, in Saks Fifth Avenue (SKS ), and, I'd guess, in any holiday-spirited concern and in homes all over the world. Always and everywhere, it is instantly Tony Bennett.
I imagine that unconcocted smile of his, warm and unthreatening, guileless and receptive for the people who shout his name: "Hey, Tony!" I have walked with him in New York, London, Las Vegas, Palm Springs. "Hey, Tony!" There is never an entourage—only Bennett.
I was his guest in Las Vegas in 1978 and had gotten up early. Outside his Sahara Hotel penthouse, I walked over to the railing that overlooked the cloudy town and found that Tony's show the night before had an afterlife—it rang in my head, song after song. I counted 38 titles received by a packed house, and this was a fallow period. Not many records, the music having changed around him, around Frank Sinatra and the rest. What to do with the Bee Gees?
At the railing, I recalled some of Tony's courageous notions:
• First vocalist to make an album primarily with percussion instruments (The Beat of My Heart, 1957).
• First male popular star to make an album with just a piano (Tony Bennett Sings for Two, 1960).
• First star to invite a jazz icon, in this case pianist Bill Evans, into the recording studio alone (they made two superb albums in 1975 and 1977).
• Second male star (Sinatra was the first) to come roaring back after a period in which little attention was paid.
This amazing resurrection was choreographed by Danny Bennett, one of Tony's two sons. Danny was all rock 'n' roll, but he helped put his father back on Columbia Records, where Tony had made many hit singles in the 1950s. There followed a cascade of remarkable albums, which account for 13 Grammys, and a wide appreciation from younger generations. It was Danny's idea to install his father in rock venues. And let me tell you, Tony was adored, cheered, cherished.
Back to the Sahara roof in 1978. Tony stood there in a terry-cloth robe and red slippers, and we talked.
"What do you think when you're asked to sing I Left My Heart in San Francisco? Isn't it tedious?" I asked.
"You've got to understand," he said. "To be recognized, identified, all over the world. I never get tired of it."
"What do you think about when you're singing?" I asked.
Tony smiled. "I sing the song. I go right along, until I come to the word love.' That's where I put an emphasis. On the word love."
We stood there for perhaps half an hour. So many years ago.
And now he is 80. His singing is still rich and nuanced. "Tony never sings a song the same way twice," a friend of his told me. I'd like to point out that Tony never sings a song the same way once. He remains inventive and ingenious.
He always overrecorded when making an album. There are 179 unreleased tracks plus an unreleased album with guitar, bass, and sax, called A Quiet Thing. We can expect, through the years, to receive new Tony Bennett releases.
Brand new material from a superb elder statesman of music. Isn't that something.
Jonathan Schwartz hosts Frank's Place, a channel on XM Satellite Radio, as well as weekend shows on WNYC-FM, a New York public radio station.