Only a handful of entertainers in the past century have had the magical "It" quality - Sinatra, Ella, Mel. There is one remaining legendary singer from this period who, at the age of 78, is still going as strong as ever. An icon of international entertainment for almost six decades, Tony Bennett is one of the longest-surviving popular jazz singers in American history, and has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
Traditional pop has worked for him, and it is the most welcoming genre for older singers because it appeals to all ages. Having won 12 Grammies, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, sold over 50 million records, and with over 50 records to his name, Tony has successfully dominated this market, and continues to be as strong as ever. "I’ve been lucky. Every year gets better for me."
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria, New York, on August 3, 1926. He began performing informally at a young age when his mother, a seamstress, and his father, an Italian grocer, used to put him in the middle of a circle with his brother John and his sister Mary, and encouraged them to perform. He would do imitations of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor to entertain the family.
Anthony was only 10 when his father died of heart disease and his mother began work in odd jobs to support the family. Due to his mother’s lack of finances and difficult time coping with her husband’s death, Anthony was sent to live with his uncle, which he later admitted had painful repercussions later in his life. "At the time I couldn't understand it. I felt deserted by those I loved most. It took a long time to figure it out and to calm down."
Bennett's break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope came into the Pearl Bailey Theatre in Greenwich Village during one of his performances. Mr. Bennett describes the moment which changed his life. "Bob said, ‘Come over here, son. What’s your real name?’ And I said ‘Antonio Benedetti.’ And he said, ‘That’s a little too long for the Marquis, let’s call you Tony Bennett.’" And so was the beginning of an illustrious and unparalleled career that has spanned almost sixty years.
In the early-90s, he realized he had to change his strategies in order to stay at the top of his game. He employed his son, Danny, to be his marketing manager. He made a huge comeback and hit an all-time high once again at the age of 65. "I had so many hits when I was young; I was the Britney Spears of my day Now my son manages me. How about that for demographics?" Realizing that marketing to the generation X was the way to go, Danny used vehicles such as MTV and Gen-X TV such as the Simpsons to present Tony in a new light: the timeless jazzman of the new millennium. 20-somethings and teenagers love the standards, especially when it’s sung by a cool man who’s hip to the modern age. An MTV-Unplugged concert, followed by duets with Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang helped to propel him into the limelight, which paved the way for the Grammy for Album of the Year.
For every concert, album, and guest appearance, Tony Bennett chooses songs that will appeal to all ages. He has a genuine enthusiasm about jazz and classic pop standards and exudes this joy onstage. He knows that he is catering to young jazz-lovers as well as the fans who have supported him throughout the ages. The New York Times once wrote, "Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises." Rather than dispute this generation-x by distancing himself and disassociating himself from it, he joined it, abiding by the expression "If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em."
For this concert, Tony sings 25 songs, from his earliest swing numbers to his more recent hits. He opens the show with "Someone Who Cares Like Me," demonstrating to us that he can vulnerably share his deepest feelings and mesmerize us with his storytelling. He sings "Meet Your Cold, Cold Heart," It Amazes Me," and "Smile," conveying the stories with such heartfelt feeling and honesty that one would think he was speaking the words for the first time. During "All of Me," he walks elatedly onstage, holding his arms out as if he is inviting the audience into his world. Never does he exclaim, "I’m so great, look at me," but rather "I am so thankful to be here Thank you for allowing us to share my story with you." There is a tangible silence before introducing "It Amazes Me," in which he tributes to the late Cy Coleman. "Cy Coleman will never die because everything he wrote is a smash. With Cy Coleman, any song he ever sold me, I did it."
About halfway through the show, he gratefully acknowledges this new magnificent venue. "Wynton Marsalis really did it, didn’t he? Great acoustics, right? 1st time in the history of world that there’s actually a jazz concert hall. I just want to show you what Wynton did." He proceeds to turn off sound system and sing "Fly Me to the Moon" without a microphone. It sounds just as intimate as though he were singing to every audience member in his living room.
Mr. Bennett introduces "If I Ruled the World" with a touching opening. "I sing this personal song, because it’s my personal prayer that on this planet we live on, we find a way to stop killing each other." He claps along with us, with no mourning but only a sense of hope. He sings "Smile" in the most sensitive, heart-wrenching way as he fights to get the words out. He tastefully closes the show with the Bergman’s "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" suggesting to us that he will continue to enchant the world with his enchanting voice and compelling storytelling for years to come.
His most recent album "The Art of Romance" was released in November of 2004 and features songs including "Close Enough to Love," "Time to Smile," and "Where Do You Start." His son had initially suggested he write the lyrics. "You’ve sung all the great composers, how come you haven’t written any?" So in addition to re-introducing lesser-known songs, he followed Danny’s advice and made his songwriting debut with "All For You," written as an instrumental piece by the late Belgian gypsy guitar player Django Reinhardt.
While he does credit some of his career to luck, he does have several guidelines that have kept him at the top of the charts for six decades. Secret #1: Integrity. "I didn't change a thing," Tony once said, "and the people finally caught up." Popular taste may have caused his level of recognition to wax and wane, but he continued to sing popular standards in his signature style with his unique conversational, resonant tenor voice, varying his timing and phrasing much spontaneity so as to bring out the melodies and lyrics of the songs most effectively.
Secret #2: Technique. Tony Bennett was trained to imitate instrumentalists rather than other singers when he sang, which makes him so original. He spent endless hours listening to the sax playing of Stan Getz and the piano playing of Art Tatum. This allowed him to hone his improvisation skills, which makes his singing more conversational and spontaneous in style. His style makes listening to a show feel like one is having an intimate conversation rather than watching a legend onstage. Secret #3: Practice. Yes, even an icon needs warming up. He has maintained a daily practice regimen, in which he utilizes the Bel Canto technique which he learned as a young singer. Bel Canto is an operatic style which incorporates intense breath work in order to maintain the intensity of the sound. "I've been warming up that way since I was a teenager - every day for about 15 minutes. For singers it's the best thing you can do to keep the voice healthy."
Secret #4: Passion. Tony Bennett lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes music. "I decided that I would spend my life just doing what I love doing: singing and painting." He admits that some of his success comes from luck, but claims "It's about having faith in the audience to discover great art." He is constantly discovering new ideas in his music. Each lyric sounds as though he is singing it for the first time, and is speaking directly to you.
A highlight of the evening was when Tony’s daughter, Antonia, elegantly graced the stage, singing "Teach Me Tonight" and "Nearness of You." Regarding secrets he gave to his daughter Antonia before her journey into jazz singing: "I told her to keep three things in mind: Breathe before each phrase; sing as you speak as if you're telling a story; and if you sing the word 'love,' make sure you mean it." Tony Bennett’s dedication to these simple yet profound truths have been the foundation for his rewarding career which continues to soar.