Sunday, September 27,
Tony Bennett Carries the Torch for Classic Pop
by James Gavin
Photo by David
TONY BENNETT remembers a time in the summer
of 1956 when NBC asked him to fill in for the vacationing
Perry Como on his television show. Despite the fact that
Mr. Bennett had already had three No. 1 hits -- "Because of
You," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Rags to Riches" -- he was
petrified. He decided to ask his idol, Frank Sinatra, whom
he had never met, for advice. "Everybody had warned me,
'Look out, he's a tough guy,' but I had intuition," Mr.
Bennett recalls. "I felt it was gonna be all right."
Backstage at the Paramount Theater, where Mr. Sinatra was
appearing, he gave the young singer a fatherly tip: "Don't
worry about being nervous. People don't mind that. It's
when you don't care that they walk away from you."
Mr. Bennett always recalls that encounter when he talks
about the importance of holding onto one's standards. In
the late 70's, he even stopped recording rather than sing
what he considered inferior material. At the age of 66, he
is still the kind of celebrity whom cabdrivers call by his
first name and who answers gushy praise by clasping his
forehead and murmuring, "Ahh, geez, thanks." But he isn't
afraid to boast when it comes to his material, which he
regards as a legacy of timeless songs. "What I try to do,"
he says, "is give a performance and have everybody say,
'God, I love that song.' That's my reward."
"Perfectly Frank," Mr. Bennett's newly released 52d album,
is a salute to an artist who, probably more than any other,
shaped Mr. Bennett's musical taste -- and who has called
him "the best goddamn pop singer I ever heard." Backed by a
trio led by Ralph Sharon, his musical director since the
1950's, Mr. Bennet performs 24 Sinatra standards. Some of
the tempos are updated -- a pulsating "One for My Baby," a
breezy, swinging version of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley
Square" -- but most of the album is simple, unembellished
pop-jazz singing in a husky tenor that sounds richer and
more flexible than it has since the late 70's.
Mr. Bennett is often compared with Mr. Sinatra, who is 10
years his senior, though their styles differ considerably.
Where Mr. Sinatra brings an actor's sense of drama to a
song, Mr. Bennett sings straight from the heart, with a
warmth that rings true -- even when he delivers a torch
song like "Here's That Rainy Day" through his perpetual
On stage at Radio City Music Hall, where he gave two recent
concerts, Mr. Bennett exuded a boyish enthusiasm that
belied his age. As ovations rose from the house, he held up
his arms like a winning prizefighter, looking as if he
wanted to embrace the whole audience. He is a lot happier
creating than analyzing; when answering questions, he often
grasps awkwardly for an adage given him by George Burns or
Mr. Sinatra (" . . it's like Frank Sinatra always told me,
'Don't worry about money. Come up with quality, and money
will follow.' "). Occasionally, to emphasize a point during
a recent interview at his midtown Manhattan apartment, he
punches his left hand, breaking through his raspy whisper
with a bang.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Astoria, Queens, in
1926, Mr. Bennett got his first taste of performing after
graduating from high school, when he landed a job as a
singing waiter for $15 a week. In 1950, he submitted a
demonstration record to Columbia and was signed
immediately. That year, a modest hit, "Boulevard of Broken
Dreams," was followed by a string of hit singles,
culminating in 1962 with his signature song, "I Left My
Heart in San Francisco."
During the 50's, Mr. Bennett eagerly joined a community
headed by Mr. Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and
others, whose music, he says, "created dreams, created
hope." At his peak, he recorded three albums a year for
Columbia and worked a circuit of clubs and concert halls --
the Copacabana and Basin Street East in New York, the
Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco -- that seemed like
fixtures on the musical landscape. "I didn't think it would
ever change," he says. "I'm still in a state of shock as to
where it went."
The rock invasion inevitably affected Mr. Bennett's record
sales in the late 60's. Unlike Peggy Lee and Miss Horne,
who welcomed the chance to dabble in rock, he clung
stubbornly to classic pop. But Clive Davis, Columbia's new
president, decided that Mr. Bennett needed to start
recording the songs of the day. As Mr. Davis wrote in his
1975 book, "Clive: Inside the Record Business": "Musically,
Tony was looking over his shoulder. His repertory was
dated, and the public wasn't buying it." Mr. Bennett agreed
to cut two pop-rock albums, "Something" and "The Great Hits
of Today," even though he says he vomited before recording
To this day, he still resents the businessmen who, in his
view, have made pop music first and foremost a moneymaking
venture. "Isn't it common sense that if you're making
recordings, a musician should be in charge?" he asks. "Now
you have the moneymen telling the artists what to do." When
he received an ultimatum to keep recording current songs or
leave the label, he left.
He calls the 70's "the worst period that every happened" in
pop music, when record companies dropped nearly all
traditional pop albums from their catalogues in favor of
rock and disco. He moved to England for three years, where
he produced three lavish orchestral albums that went
nowhere. Returning to this country in the mid-70's, Mr.
Bennett formed his own label, Improv, which quickly folded
because he could not get a distributor. Although his
concert audiences largely remained loyal, it came as a
major blow when he eventually found himself shut out of Las
Vegas -- reportedly because he could not compete with the
glitzier stars and extravaganzas. That has not changed.
"Us solo performers made that town -- Louis Prima, Dean
Martin, Sammy Davis," he says. "Then once it starts flying,
instead of saying, 'Thank you,' they say, 'Who needs you?
Get out of here.' "
But by the mid-80's Mr. Bennett began to emerge as more
than a survivor of a bygone era. After Linda Ronstadt,
Willie Nelson and Carly Simon recorded successful albums of
standards, he rejoined Columbia in 1985. Says his son
Danny, his manager since 1979: "People kept saying, 'Wait a
minute. Those records seem like an alternative to the real
thing.' " He negotiated a five-album deal, of which
"Perfectly Frank" is the fourth.
Since then, singers like Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson have
returned to major labels as well, but Mr. Bennett believes
that the industry is still obsessed with pushing
"disposable" pop on the youth market to make a quick buck.
"The young people are absolutely programmed," he says.
"They're still being told, 'This is your music, and that
other stuff is for your parents.' "
Though he won a Grammy for "I Left My Heart in San
Francisco" in 1962, Mr. Bennett and most of his
contemporaries have not been treated kindly by the awards
committee in recent years. "Today, the way the Grammys are
run, the distributors should get the awards," he says.
Nominated in 1990 for his album "Astoria," he found himself
in competition with the 22-year-old Harry Connick Jr., whom
he had met seven years earlier in New Orleans. "Harry's
father brought him up to me after a concert and said, 'I
have a young son here who's a singer. We really have faith
in him,' " Mr. Bennett recalls. "I just told him to stick
At the Grammy ceremony two years ago, Mr. Bennett received
the only standing ovation of the evening when he sang
Charles DeForest's "When Do the Bells Ring for Me?" Mr.
Connick won the award.
The jazz singer Carmen McRae, who made a guest appearance
on Mr. Connick's second album, "20," in 1988, later spoke
out against the choice. "I like Harry," she told Downbeat
magazine. "He's a nice kid and everything, but over Tony
Bennett, no way."
Nonetheless, Mr. Bennett still maintains a schedule that
any singer would envy, performing as many as 200 concerts a
year. "I get nightly awards -- standing ovations," he says.
"I don't feel frustrated." Being a troubadour, he admits,
has made it tough to maintain a conventional family life.
Twice divorced, he has three children in addition to Danny:
Antonia, Joanna and Daegal, his record producer. Keeping
his business in the family, Mr. Bennett says, is the only
way to avoid having to compromise. Off stage, he occupies
himself by painting, a lifelong passion. A recent afternoon
found him in his apartment working on a painting of the
Avenue of the Americas, which his living room overlooks.
In many ways, Frank Sinatra is still his hero. "I asked
Sinatra last year, 'Why do you think we've stayed around so
long?' He said, 'Because we stayed with good music,' " Mr.
Bennett says. "That's what I tried to tell the young people
with this album -- that if you're gonna write songs, aim
for this kind of craftsmanship. And if you're gonna sing
them, sing the ones that are gonna be around for a long