The following series, "Celebrating an American Treasure: Tony Bennett at 90," appeared as an exclusive Notablog feature that ran from Sunday, July 31, 2016 to Friday, August 5, 2016.
CELEBRATING AN AMERICAN TREASURE
TONY BENNETT AT 90
A "Song of the Day" Tribute to Tony Bennett
CHRIS MATTHEW SCIABARRA
Facebook Announcement: For the next six days, I will be featuring a Notablog tribute in honor of a great American artist as part of my "Song of the Day" series: "Celebrating an American Treasure: Tony Bennett at 90."
Today, Sunday, July 31, 2016, I begin a mini-tribute to Tony Bennett (a Wikipedia link that provided me with the basic information herein). Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, this man would become one of the greatest vocal interpreters of The Great American Songbook. On Wednesday, August 3rd, he will celebrate his 90th birthday. Like Frank Sinatra, whose centenary we celebrated last year, Bennett recorded so many albums that I grew up listening to in my home, which was always alive with music, seemingly every waking hour of every day. Like Sinatra, Bennett was a talented Italian American singer nourished on a diet of swing and jazz. But unlike Hoboken's best, Bennett was a native New Yorker, a child of Astoria, Queens (indeed, one of his finest gifts to those who live in Astoria, was his founding of the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts, for high school students). He is a man who, like Sinatra, saw his ups and his downs, but who grew to embrace, without compromise, the music that inspired him and even the painting that he embraced as a creative product of his boundless imagination.
It is almost impossible to come up with enough songs in tribute to the great entertainer, because anyone looking at "My Favorite Songs" would find him among my most cited singers: "A Child is Born," "Darn that Dream," "The Days of Wine and Roses," "Falling in Love with Love," "For Once in My Life," "Give Me the Simple Life," "The Good Life," "Have You Met Miss Jones?," "I Could Write a Book," "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," "I Fall in Love Too Easily," "If I Love Again," "If You Were Mine," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "I'll Be Seeing You," "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)," "In a Mellow Tone," "It Was Me," "I've Got Your Number," "I Wanna Be Around," "Just in Time," "The Lady is a Tramp," "Let's Face the Music" (also check out a sweet duet version with Lady Gaga [YouTube link]), "Let the Good Times Roll," "The Moment of Truth," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Nuages," "Once Upon a Summertime," "Polovetsian Dance No. 2," "Put on a Happy Face," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Street of Dreams," "There'll Be Some Changes Made," "Thou Swell," "Until I Met You," "We'll Be Together Again," "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)?," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "You Must Believe in Spring." Without a doubt, my all-time favorite album of Tony's is and remains: "I Wanna Be Around," and nearly all of the songs from that album are on the list above.
My Top Ten (in alphabetical order)
I could easily give you a Top Ten list of my favorite Bennett recordings, not in any particular order except alphabetical (and all the titles below are hyperlinks to their original Bennett recordings, as featured on YouTube):
1. "For Once in My Life" [YouTube link] Stevie Wonder may have had the bigger chart hit, but he's always said, "This is Tony's song." Appropriately, Tony did a version of this song in a tribute to Wonder in the TV special celebrating "Songs in the Key of Life" [YouTube link]. And the two also did a ballad duet rendition of the song on Bennett's "Duets" album [YouTube link].
2. "The Good Life" [YouTube link]. The lead-off track on Bennet's great "I Wanna Be Around" album, this one rose to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1962.
3. "If I Love Again" [YouTube link]. This one also appears on "I Wanna Be Around," and it is one of the most sensitive, heart-breaking renditions of this song ever recorded.
4. "If You Were Mine" [YouTube link]. Obviously, a champion of communicating heartbreak, Bennett recorded this one for the "I Wanna Be Around" album as well.
5. "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" [YouTube link]. Witten by two Brooklynites (George Cory and Douglass Cross), this one became a signature tune sung by the boy from Queens, one of two officially recognized anthems for the city of San Francisco (joining the song "San Francisco," title theme from the 1936 film). It peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100.
6. "I Wanna Be Around" [YouTube link]. This one still remains one of the great, bitter "screw you" songs in the history of lost love. It is the title song from my all-time favorite Bennett album, released in 1963.
7. "Just in Time" [YouTube link] . Introduced in the 1956 musical, "Bells are Ringing," Tony scored a big 1960 hit with this one.
8. "The Moment of Truth" [YouTube link]. From his album, "This is All I Ask" and as a bonus track on the CD release of the album "I Wanna Be Around," this one swings hard.
9. "Put on a Happy Face" [YouTube link]. So good, I picked it TWICE (by accident) for "My Favorite Songs."
10. "The Shadow of Your Smile" [YouTube link]. Bennett delivers the utterly definitive version of a classic Oscar-winning "Best Original Song" from the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor 1965 film, "The Sandpiper" (and this song has been recorded umpteen times by artists as varied as jazz pianist Bill Evans and dance group D Train! [YouTube links]). Bennett's recording actually won the 1966 Grammy for "Song of the Year." His rendition, with its introductory lyrics intact (not heard on the original score), was arranged and conducted by the man who composed and arranged the original film score: Johnny Mandel, who also collected a Grammy for "Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media," a perfect match for the shatteringly beautiful backdrop of Big Sur, featured in the film. The lyrics were written by Paul Francis Webster. And the score itself features the achingly beautiful trumpet work of Jack Sheldon.
So those are my Top Ten Bennett songs, alphabetically arranged; as for my Number One Bennett impersonator, there is only one: Alec Baldwin [among these "Saturday Night Live" skits, check out, especially, the Baldwin "Tony" interview with "Phony Bennett" played by the real one!].
Bennett emerged on the music scene in the early 1950s, a child of the Sinatra generation, who would go on to sell over 50 million albums worldwide. Bennett was impacted by many of the same artists that Sinatra listened to, from Bing Crosby to Louis Armstrong (and one of my favorite jazz violinists, the great Joe Venuti). He served in World War II, and didn't get his first musical break until 1949, when Pearl Bailey asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village. Signed to Columbia Records, he was warned by Mitch Miller not to sound like an imitation of Sinatra, though it was impossible for anyone in that era not to have been touched by the greatness of Ol' Blue Eyes. His artistry deepened with his collaborations with the great jazz guitarist Chuck Wayne (a man whose "consecutive-picking technique" greatly influenced the approach of my own brother, jazz guitarist Carl Barry, to whom Wayne was a dear friend). Wayne became Bennett's musical director for his first LP, "Cloud 7", in 1954, but by 1957, Bennett began his long musical relationship with pianist Ralph Sharon, with whom Bennett embraced an even deeper jazz idiom, resulting in albums featuring Herbie Mann, Nat Adderly, Art Blakey, and several with the Count Basie Orchestra. For me, the heights of his intepretive jazz work can be found on two magical sessions with the immortal pianist Bill Evans.
Yet the times they were a changin', musically speaking, and as the rock era came to dominate the music scene, Bennett fell into a great depression, his art form seemingly lost. He had no recording contract, no concerts outside of Las Vegas, a failing marriage, and increasingly severe tax problems with the IRS. He suffered a near fatal cocaine overdose in 1979. But with the help of his son Danny, he began to turn his life around. Stressing the music that made him grand in the eyes of generations of fans, he reached the MTV Generation, winning a 1995 Grammy for Album of the Year for his "MTV Unplugged" concert. Recognized for his achievements, he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. He has won 2 Emmy Awards, and 19 Grammy Awards (mostly in the category of "Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance"). In 2001, he became a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner. In 2005, he was inducted as an honoree of the Kennedy Center, and in 2006, he was honored with the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Award.
It is no coincidence that Frank Sinatra, the singer whose centenary I marked with a three-week tribute in November-December 2015, called Tony Bennett "the best singer in the business." Over the next week, we'll have a chance to hear a few of the reasons why Sinatra was so moved. Our tribute starts today with a beautifully appropriate "Song of the Day," a sign of their personal, mutual admiration society: "Last Night When We Were Young," a track from the 1992 album, "Perfectly Frank," Bennett's tribute to one of his musical heroes.
When our celebration is complete, I will list all the songs of the tribute here, with their accompanying links.
[31 July 2016] Last Night When We Were Young, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Yip Harburg, has been recorded by many artists through the years, but it was a highlight from Frank Sinatra's classic 1955 album, "In the Wee Small Hours." It is among the songs that appears on Tony Bennett's 1992 album, a tribute album, "Perfectly Frank," to the man who called Bennett "the best singer in the business," as I point out in my kick-off essay, "A Tribute to an American Treasure: Tony Bennett at 90." Bennett had recorded this song on his 1960 album "To My Wonderful One" [YouTube link]. But there is something about this loving, whispery version [YouTube link] on the Sinatra tribute album that drives home the fact that theirs was a mutual admiration society. Today kicks off our six-day tribute to Bennett, whose 90th birthday is on Wednesday, August 3rd.
[1 August 2016] Skyscraper Blues, music by Gordon Jenkins, lyrics by Tom Adair, is from the 1959 Bennett album, "Hometown, My Town," featuring reflections in song on the city of his birth. The orchestrations of Ralph Burns are wonderful; the big band featuring such jazz artists as tenor saxman Al Cohn, guitarist Al Caiola, and trombonist Billy Byers.Thie more than 7-minute track plays almost like a symphony of changing sounds, moods, and hues, encapsulating the lonely blues and swinging ways that Bennett's New York City can evoke in any individual who might become almost overwhelmed by the greatest skyline, the greatest sights, and the greatest sounds of the greatest city on earth. Check it out on YouTube. [1 August 2016]
[2 August 2016] The Touch of Your Lips, words and music by Ray Noble, who wrote the song in 1936, has been recorded by many artists through the years, most notably and sensitively by jazz trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker (with some nice guitar work by Doug Raney) [YouTube link]. It was the title track from his 1979 album. But our birthday boy of the week also provides us with an unforgettable rendition, a magnificent collaboration with the immortal pianist Bill Evans, from their 1975 album, "The Tony Bennett - Bill Evans Album." Check out the two lyrical masters on YouTube.
[3 August 2016] This is All I Ask, words and music by Gordon Jenkins, is an appropriate way to say "Happy Birthday, Tony Bennett," for on this day in 1926, he was born. From Nat King Cole to Frank Sinatra [YouTube links], this standard has been recorded by many artists. And yet, there is a special resonance in the lyric, on this day more than any other, as Bennett sings: "As I approach the prime of my life, I find I have the time of my life, Learning to enjoy at my leisure all the simple pleasures. And so I happily concede, That this is all I ask, This is all I need . . . Take me to that strange, enchanted land grown-ups seldom understand. . . . And let the music play as long as there's a song to sing. And I will stay younger than Spring." For fans, Tony will always be "younger than Spring." This was the title track from Bennett's 1963 album, but first appeared in a different arrangement on his 1961 album, "Alone Together." Check out the 1961 version and the more intimate 1963 version [YouTube links], with the opening accompaniment of his pianist and long-time musical director, Ralph Sharon. He also recorded it in a duet with Josh Grobon [YouTube link] for his 2012 album, "Duets II," released in conjunction with his 85th birthday. Well, Tony is still going strong at 90, the "prime" of his life has been given a long extended remix for the benefit of generations of fans who still appreciate his boundless talent and energy. Happy birthday to a fellow New Yorker of Italian descent. Stick with us through Friday, when we conclude our mini-tribute to an American treasure.
[4 August 2016] Yesterday I Heard the Rain, words and music by Gene Lees and Armando Manzanero, is the title song of Bennet's 1968 album, but can also be heard in a live version with Count Basie and a duet with Alejandro Sanz [YouTube links; this last (from Bennett's 2012 "Duets II" album]. Like Sinatra, Bennett could deliver a ballad and infuse it with the heartache he most certainly experienced at points in his life. That he has triumped over this heartache and remains with us, still performing at 90, is a milestone worth celebrating. Last night, the Empire State Building provided the native New Yorker with a lovely light show in honor of his 90th birthday. Check it out on YouTube. Tomorrow, we conclude our mini-tribute; after all--where there is heartache in losing a love (and Bennett felt that heartache), there is always the need to take a chance on love, no matter how young or old you may be.
[5 August 2016] [As I said on Facebook: >>"Taking a Chance on Love" provides us with the finale to our "Tony Bennett at 90" series; this one is a swinging performance with the great Count Basie Orhcestra. Tomorrow, we return to our Saturday Night Dance Party, but for you folks who don't know how to move your feet to this kind of music, well, you know, 'it don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing'<<]: Taking a Chance on Love, music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John La Touche and Ted Fetter, is a popular standard first published in 1940 and featured in the 1940 musical, "Cabin in the Sky," with an all-black cast, where it was sung by Ethel Waters and Dooley Wilson [YouTube link] and in the 1943 film version, featuring Waters with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson [YouTube links]. It has been recorded by countless artists, but it is an especially poignant way of noting how much Bennett credits the African-American contributions to his own exploration of the jazz idiom. So, we end our tribute on an upnote with an uptune, from a magical 1959 Bennett album: "In Person!," featuring a very jazzy Bennett with the ever-jazzy Count Basie and His Orchestra; check it out on YouTube, and take it from one who knows: Always take a chance on love! For love, love of his music, his art, his fans, the special people in his life, is the driving force of Bennett's career. This may conclude our mini-tribute, but there's no doubt he'll appear again on my ever-expanding "favorite song" list.