Tony Bennett and the Renaissance of the Great American Songbook

The Italian-American icon passed away today at 96

Artwork from the Tony Bennett Christmas album Snowfall (Image: Discogs)

Tony Bennett bounded onto the small stage of the cramped Blue Note club on West 3rd Street in Manhattan.

The Blue Note has a capacity of around 250 people, far more intimate than the nightclubs and concert halls Mr. Bennett had been accustomed to playing, and the engagement had a sense of moment. There was a subterranean murmur: “Can you believe this?” It was the last week of September 1991; the singer had turned 65 less than two months earlier, so the patrons might have been forgiven if they thought of this as a golden opportunity to see a legendary performer in career twilight. He’d been recording since the start of the 1950s (“Because of You” hit #1 in 1951), and Columbia Records had assembled an appropriately thorough and reverential boxed set, Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, summing up his decades-long association with the label (and their estrangement from the early ’70s through the mid ’80s).

The year before, Columbia had released the album Astoria: Portrait of the Artist, which sounded as though Bennett was in a reflective, retrospective frame of mind. It’s bathed in nostalgia, from the cover, which is a modern replication of a shot from his youth (the original shot is on the back), to the selection of material. There’s a version of the first song he recorded professionally, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” the sepia-tinted romanticism of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” and a hushed but fervent take on one of his favorite songs, “Speak Low” (a highlight of his Blue Note set, and of many sets before and since). Along with such vintage material as “Body and Soul” and “There Will Never Be Another You,” there are newer songs, some from a composer Bennett was mysteriously fond of, named Charles DeForest, who provided the clarion showpiece “When Do the Bells Ring for Me” that earned Bennett a rousing ovation when he sang it at the Grammy Awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall earlier in 1991.



What we didn’t know, those of us in his presence at the Blue Note and Radio City, was that all this was prelude. How could we have foreseen it? No one had ever pulled off something like it, a renaissance that surpassed, in sales, in acclaim, in award-recognition, everything that led up to it. As the 20th century came to a close, Tony Bennett was one of the most popular singers of classic American song on the planet, with a string of albums over the century’s last decade that ranks with Ella Fitzgerald’s series of Songbooks on Verve and Frank Sinatra’s run of concept albums on Capitol as the most sustained streak of pop-music mastery on disc. It was remarkable, really: Perfectly Frank, Steppin’ Out, MTV Unplugged, Here’s to the Ladies, Tony Bennett on Holiday, The Playground, and Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool. What you get on these albums is the start of a basic library of songs everyone ought to know, lovingly assembled and tastefully, emotionally sung. Who else had pulled off such a stunning third act? Philip Roth, from Sabbath’s Theater through The Plot Against America?

Bennett had made first-rate albums in earlier decades, certainly: The Beat of My Heart in the ’50s, The Movie Song Album, and When Lights Are Low in the ’60s, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album in the ‘70s. And even his spottier efforts on Columbia during his initial tenure there all had tracks that are absolutely essential (I wouldn’t want to be without “I Walk a Little Faster,” for example, or “Watch What Happens”). But the ’90s albums, the Ellington and Holiday sessions in particular, have a late-period assuredness, a mixture of the serious and the playful, and a generosity (the albums push CD running-times to their limit: the Sinatra one packs in two dozen songs, like Bennett and pianist Ralph Sharon are at a party and guests keep shouting out requests). There was something missionary about Bennett in his later years. He needed us to understand: This is important stuff. Pay attention. He used Sinatra, or Astaire (on Steppin’ Out), or Holiday as a premise. You don’t have to know Astaire as a singer to appreciate what Bennett is up to. Once, I saw Bennett do “I Concentrate on You,” which is on the Astaire tribute, in concert, and it was as though he revealed its core. Cole Porter does in that song what Brian Wilson does in “Don’t Worry Baby”: in the face of everything, in the darkest hour of doubt, there is someone who gives him faith.


VIDEO: Tony Bennett on Late Night With Conan O’Brien 12/21/93

Much has been written about Bennett’s comeback story as a triumph of marketing. He was adrift, the narrative goes, and with the aid of his manager (and son) Danny Bennett, a strategy was hatched to revitalize him. He appeared, in animated form, on a 1990 episode of The Simpsons singing “Capitol City”; he showed up regularly on David Letterman’s show. Tony Bennett, the message was, is hip. He knows what he’s doing. And beginning with Perfectly Frank in 1992, Columbia Records was completely on board with the campaign. That album won Bennett the first Grammy given for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, and he would go on to win that trophy for every album he made in the ’90s. For the title song of Steppin’ Out, Columbia made a video that got added to the “Buzz Bin” on MTV. Bennett played live shows promoted by alternative rock stations. He did MTV’s Unplugged, which was pretty funny, because it was just a normal Tony Bennett set at Sony Studios with his usual backing trio. That won him an Album of the Year Grammy.

The brilliance of all that was in claiming that slot in the public’s imagination; Bennett stood in for a whole generation. He became the embodiment of pre-rock romanticism, the go-to guy for Rat Pack–era values, the one singer left for whom the Great American Songbook was the basic musical text. When you needed someone to sing “The Way You Look Tonight” in My Best Friend’s Wedding, you called Tony. Songs for the romantic comedy It Could Happen to You? Tony. Analyze This? Swingers? You get the drift. But it wasn’t as though this were simply an ingenious plan hatched by Danny Bennett and Columbia. You know why it worked? Because it was Tony Bennett. It wouldn’t have done the trick for Mel Tormé, no matter that he showed up on Seinfeld. It wouldn’t have made Vic Damone or Jack Jones MTV-era stars. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé sang Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” on a 1997 album called Lounge-a-Palooza, but they were still Steve & Eydie, the uncle and aunt who embarrass you at your bar mitzvah.

Tony Bennett didn’t need to sing “Black Hole Sun.” Not that he would have. What people responded to about him is his authenticity. He played to the MTV crowd, and still sang “Old Devil Moon” and “A Foggy Day.” When he brought in younger artists to collaborate with, they played on his court: Shawn Colvin doing a duet with him on “Always” for the It Could Happen to You soundtrack. Elvis Costello (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) and k.d. lang (“Moonglow”) on Unplugged. You could try to steer Bennett toward a more modern, more with-it groove, but history has proven that to be an exercise in folly. In the ’50s, Columbia A&R guru Mitch Miller gave him some rock’n’roll-ish tunes like “Cinnamon Sinner” (“She’s my marshmallow mama with a jellyroll heart”), but Bennett sounded square, daddy-o. He even was part of an Alan Freed R&R bill at the Brooklyn Paramount, and as Nick Tosches says in Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll, “Columbia decided that Tony Bennett would be its rock-’n’-roll star. ‘DIG THE CRAZIEST!! HE SWINGS!! HE ROCKS!! HE GOES!!’” His single “Close Your Eyes” was hyped as an “ASTOUNDING RHYTHM AND BLUES RENDITION.” This was, of course, pure madness, as were such Bennett platters as “(Come Back and) Tell Me That You Love Me” by R&B cleffer Lincoln Chase. It was all part of a futile attempt to sell Bennett to the dungaree dolls who were driving the pop market. He nearly hit the top 10 in ’56 with the completely bonkers “From The Candy Store On the Corner to The Chapel On the Hill,” backed with “Happiness Street (Corner Sunshine Square).” The second half of the ‘50s, it’s safe to say, was not an auspicious period for Bennett as a singles artist, although he made some excellent LPs, including The Beat of My Heart (there’s a Kern song on that one, “Let’s Begin”), Long Ago and Far Away and a couple of sets with Count Basie.



With the hits “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “I Wanna Be Around,” (the title songs of top 5 albums), Bennett was back in the center of the musical conversation. The back end of the ‘60s (after ’66’s The Movie Song Album) into the early ‘70s — until nice Rodgers & Hart collections in ’73 and the essential Bill Evans collaboration in ’75 — was another dip in Bennett’s fortunes commercially and, it must be said, creatively. You would think Bennett plus Bacharach would’ve been a relatively compatible association, but Bennett stumbled on “Alfie,” flailed around in the midst of a loungey arrangement of “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” and couldn’t find the window into “The Look of Love” and “Make It Easy On Yourself.” And we will not speak of The Great Hits of Today! except to note that “Eleanor Rigby” is recited, “MacArthur Park” is truncated, and Bennett’s distaste for “Little Green Apples” is undisguised. The Teo Macero-produced sequel, Tony Bennett’s Something, is only marginally better (“Wave,” as well as “The Gentle Rain” from his Love Story album and an earlier “How Insensitive,” make one wish for the Bennett Bossa album that never was), and if you poke around the last Columbia albums of his first tenure at the label, you’ll find stray curios that could be compiled into an interesting period overview: Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” Blossom Dearie’s “Sweet Georgie Fame,” Kern & Dorothy Fields’ “Remind Me,” the John Barry-Don Black theme from Walkabout.

He and Columbia parted ways in 1972, and it was nearly a decade and a half before they reunited with the 1986 album The Art of Excellence. Two more albums (Bennett/Berlin and Astoria) preceded Perfectly Frank, the project that would define his direction for the remainder of the decade: concept albums that gave him the chance to dig through his bottomless bag of timeless songs. Some were exquisite start-to-stop. He didn’t let himself get boxed in by what anyone might expect from a Sinatra set: there’s no “My Way” (thank God), no “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” no “Theme from New York, New York” (Bennett joined Sinatra for that one on Frank’s Duets album). It’s just Bennett and the Sharon-led trio at their most intimate and thoughtful, doing one beautiful song after another: “I Thought About You,” “I Wished On the Moon” (he reprised it on his Holiday tribute), “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “Angel Eyes”… It’s a Sinatra album more in spirit than in emulation.

Steppin’ Out is a more spirited, fleet-footed album of songs introduced in films by Fred Astaire (whose name and likeness appear nowhere on the cover due to a lack of cooperation from the hoofer’s estate). Lots of Gershwin tunes, some Berlin he didn’t get around to on Bennett/Berlin, and a bunch from the Howard Dietz–Arthur Schwartz score from The Band Wagon (the album concludes with “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “By Myself”). It’s an album that confirms what critic Whitney Balliett wrote about Bennett in the New Yorker back in the ’70s: “He can be a lilting, glancing jazz singer. He can be a low-key, searching supper-club performer. But Bennett’s voice binds all his vocal selves together. … It has a joyous quality.”

He was, in his more upbeat mood, a happiness machine. Impressions by Martin Short and Alec Baldwin touch on that, the pure delight in being on a stage, the unabashed enthusiasm that would seem pasted on if it weren’t so obviously sincere. His song catalog brims with that. “Put on a Happy Face” from Bye Bye Birdie, “Make Someone Happy,” “Get Happy,” “The Good Life,” “The Best Is Yet to Come.” What people saw in him was optimism, so it makes sense that he would make the hippest children’s album since June Christy’s The Cool School. You might tire of his duets with various Muppets (and with Rosie O’Donnell), but 1998’s The Playground is damned delightful, as he swings through the jazz staple “Dat Dere,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive” and, naturally, “Swinging on a Star.” (I thought Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” might be a fun addition to the repertoire, but it was not to be.)


Music critic Will Friedwald wrote, “There’s not a project from this period”—since Bennett went back to Columbia—“that’s less than excellent.” Fair enough, but some are more excellent than others. The spottiest is 1995’s Here’s to the Ladies, and that’s because of the breadth of its theme: songs originally sung by women. Some of Bennett’s choices are unexpected: “My Love Went to London” (Blossom Dearie cut it first), “Poor Butterfly” (Sarah Vaughan), “You Showed Me the Way” (Ella Fitzgerald), but no one, you’d think, needed to hear “People” and “Over the Rainbow” again (if you must bow to Streisand and Garland, how about, oh, “A Sleepin’ Bee”? “Be a Clown”?). But that’s quibbling. Friedwald’s point is well taken: Bennett’s ’90s discography is so impressive that only by comparison to On Holiday and Ellington: Hot and Cool could Here’s to the Ladies be considered less than stellar.

The only way you could improve Tony Bennett on Holiday would be by lopping off the concluding track, one of those infernal manufactured duets from the crypt that started with Natalie Cole superimposing her father on “Unforgettable.” Otherwise, it’s perfection. Like Holiday, Bennett is a master of phrasing; they have little in common vocally, but what they share is the quest for the emotional sweet spot. The huskiness Bennett’s voice took on by the late ’70s was nothing like the way Holiday’s cracked poignantly in her later years, but they seem like compatible souls. Bennett has to find a different path into the songs, and his performances on “Solitude,” “Willow Weep for Me,” “Some Other Spring,” and “Ill Wind,” with string arrangements by Jorge Calandrelli, are deeply moving. The Hot and Cool album is, perhaps, even better; Bennett gathered up highlights from the Duke Ellington songbook (and Billy Strayhorn’s instrumental “Chelsea Bridge,” which he turns over to Wynton Marsalis, like it’s a break in a live set where he goes to the wings for a smoke). If there was a song better suited to late-period Bennett than “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” I don’t know what that might be.


VIDEO: Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse “Body and Soul”

Into the 21st century, Bennett’s streak continued, but except for a brilliant collection of Jerome Kern songs accompanied by pianist Bill Charlap, and The Art of Romance (a belated sequel to The Art of Excellence), his albums became more communal affairs. Volumes of all-star duets, collaborations with k.d. lang, Lady Gaga, and Diana Krall. While it’s fun to hear him in the company of artists who clearly revere him, and the albums all have exceptional moments—the collaboration with Amy Winehouse on “Body and Soul” makes me ache for the album that might’ve been; Norah Jones makes a sympathetic partner on “Speak Low”; and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but he and Billy Joel do a bang-up job on “New York State of Mind”—they lack the singular focus of that incredible run of albums from the ’90s.

Hearing the news of his death, I thought about how he continued to circle back to “Speak Low,” the Kurt Weill–Ogden Nash song from 1943. I saw Tony Bennett live so many times—at the Blue Note, the Apollo, the tapings of Unplugged and the first A&E By Request (the concept for the show came from him and Danny)—and it seemed to be always a part of his set. It’s on his first live album, recorded in 1962 at Carnegie Hall, on When Lights Are Low in a peppy version, on To My Wonderful One as a creamy ballad, on the belatedly unearthed On the Glory Road. When he started his re-emergence in the ’90s, it appeared on Astoria. And then on MTV Unplugged. It followed him through his entire career, and it deepened and deepened. For most people, Tony Bennett’s signature song will always be “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but for me, when I think of him, on a stage two feet away from me at the Blue Note, or at Radio City Music Hall not many years ago, it’s “Speak Low” that comes to mind.


Time is so old and love so brief

Love is pure gold and time a thief

We’re late, darling, we’re late

The curtain descends, everything ends too soon, too soon


So long, Tony.



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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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