Tony Bennett – WICN Artist of the Month, September 2021
Written by Doug Hall on September 1, 2021
As one of the greatest crooners and stylists of the Great American Songbook, Tony Bennett has been influenced by and taken vocal impressions from many singular, legendary jazz performers. Bennett’s well-known emotional and physical reaction to hearing the birth of Bebop through Charlie Parker’s rapid-fire saxophone soloing at Birdland one night in the 1950s would also begin a lifelong personal and professional attachment and love for jazz. Early on in his career, he was warned by his vocal teacher, Mimi Spear, and later Columbia Records producer/conductor/music impresario Mitch Miller – to “not sound like Frank Sinatra, but develop your own style.” Bennett would reflect on this advice throughout his 70 years of performing.
The phrasing of lyrics and melody, in contemporary songs or jazz ballads, would become a distinction Bennett would establish, becoming renowned for his own vocal interpretations. He credits the advice of now-legendary jazz musicians Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald, who were all playing at clubs off of 52nd street in New York City in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. In a 2019 JazzTimes interview, Bennett stated, “They gave me one great lesson that I love to this day. It’s to never try and get a hit song. Don’t try to imitate anyone. Learn how to phrase from musicians, not other singers.” He would develop an unusual approach that would incorporate imitating, as he sang, the style and phrasing of musicians. He cites Art Tatum and Stan Getz in particular for this early influence on his vocal improvisation. “I chose Art Tatum, who was the first to walk away from dance tempos and play rubato choruses on songs, which was very new in those days. I was criticized by other musicians, who would ask me why I was going out of tempo. I told them I got that from Art Tatum. Stan Getz had a beautiful, warm, melodic sound on the saxophone, so I imitated that. From the two of them, I developed my own style.” (JazzTimes interview, 2019)
Bennett’s recording career would begin away from jazz, during the 1950s, with pop song arrangements by producer Mitch Miller, who would bring wider commercial success for Bennett with “Because of You,” a ballad with rich orchestral backing by Percy Faith. This hit would sell over a million copies in 1951 and be followed up later that year by a second chart-topping cover, this time Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold, Heart.” His recording of “Blue Velvet” during this same period found an audience of teenagers, which led to Bennett performing live at the Paramount Theater in New York to sell-out crowds of screaming fans, pre-dating The Beatles’ U.S. tour hysteria.
With a Big Band brassy sound, Bennett again topped the 1953 charts with “Rags to Riches” and later “Stranger in Paradise” for promotion of the upcoming Broadway musical “Kismet.” During this same period, he would place eight songs in the Billboard Top 40. Further commercial exposure would follow, with Bennett regularly performing on popular TV variety shows while also hosting his own show, “The Tony Bennett Show” (1956), and standing in as a regular host for the “Perry Como Show” (1959).
Leaning back toward a jazz direction, Bennett would work with Mitch Miller again on “Cloud 7” (1955), seeking a more intimate and mood-setting feel for his vocals. Produced by Miller, he surrounded himself with a small jazz group and recorded 10 standards. With arrangements by bebop jazz guitarist Chuck Wayne, particularly the opening song “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” Bennett found chemistry in his emotional takes, as reviewed by AllMusic critic Thom Jurek: “the mood is nocturnal, elegant, amorous, hip.”
Digging deeper into this jazz direction on his third full-length LP album, The Beat of My Heart (1957), Bennett would find top players in jazz to help him feature a jazz voicing, with subtle arrangements by pianist, conductor, and arranger Ralph Sharon. Backed by stellar musicianship, including drummers Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, and Latin percussionist Candido, with Herbie Mann on flute and Nate Adderly on trumpet, Bennett would earn both critical praise and solid sales for this turn away from pop music. As stated by AllMusic critic William Ruhlmann, “Bennett was more than a near-operatic, melodramatic pop singer of the early ‘50s. Here was a man who had jazz chops, musical imagination, and a sense of swing.”
During this same time period, Bennett would connect with The Count Basie Orchestra for two successful recordings, Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958), and In Person (1959). Bennett would always credit Basie with giving him the platform of swing to add to his style and generously giving the limelight to his singing.
His highly acclaimed Carnegie Hall performance in 1962, recorded on “Tony Bennett at Carnegie Hall,” would again feature a cast of exceptional jazz musicians, including Ralph Sharon on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Al Cohn on tenor saxophone, and a fully expanded Latin percussion section that included Conga and bongo impresario Candido. Some of the setlist, including “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” would become forever associated with the Bennett songbook.
In ‘62, Bennett would follow up with what would become his signature song (and a Billboard-topping success), “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” released on an album of the same title. It would garner the first in a series of Grammy Awards for him, including Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Performance.
With the advent of rock ‘n’ roll and the overwhelming youthful American fanbase response to The Beatles and the exposure provided by their U.S. tour, the early ‘60s began the “British Invasion,” with a host of other English bands following them. The effect upon Bennett and other American pop singers translated into a significant loss of audience and record sales. Though Bennett was finding directions in jazz with exceptional players and finding a creative voicing for himself, he would struggle artistically, professionally, and personally. Forced to cover more rock-based songs, Bennett found little success and floundered in album sales, eventually losing his recording contract with Columbia Records.
During this period, a suggestion by jazz singer Annie Ross to “do an album with Bill Evans” would lead to, for Bennett, one of his most personally rewarding recordings and valued musical relationships with another musician. The result of this collaboration with seminal modern jazz pianist Bill Evans would produce Bennett’s most unique and critically remembered recordings. In his review of some of the finest 20th-century recordings, music critic Will Friedwald states, “It’s not typical Tony Bennett; in fact, it’s not typical anybody. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in recorded music. It’s almost more like a classical duet than what we think of as a singer and a piano player in jazz or a pop context.”
As Bennett was struggling with his loss of popularity, and without a solid recording contract, he felt a special kinship with Evans, who was also in the depths of drug addiction and dealing with a personal loss. Bennett reflected on this magical musical moment and the genius of Evans’ compositions: “it was the smartest move I’ve ever made because it’s now known as the best thing that I’ve ever done. That’s because of Bill. He was just magnificent. His music will live forever. Piano players just shake their heads; they can’t believe how good he is. They want to learn from him. He just knew how to do it better than anybody.” And for a musical education, Bennett gives direct credit: “it felt like I was recording with a symphony. …But what was fascinating to me was just to listen to how he constructed the performance of each song. The greatest music lesson I ever got.” The two albums produced from this brilliant musical collaboration are the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976), produced under Bennett’s own record label Improv.
Many years later, while Bennett was preparing for a live performance, he had his final conversation with Evans, revealed in the 2015 documentary, Bill Evans/Time Remembered, “Just before he died, I got a call from him,” Bennett says in the film. “‘Just go with truth and beauty and forget the rest.’ And ever since then, that’s been the premise of my life.”
The late ‘70s and early ‘80s would be a critical stage in Bennett’s life, as drug addiction and lack of recording contracts, financial loss, and a disinterested audience would combine to drive a decline in his health and professional opportunities. In 1979, Bennett’s son Danny would step in to become his manager, promoter, and personal support network.
A turnaround occurred for Bennett in the mid- ‘80s, with his son resuscitating Bennett’s career with bookings in small nightclubs and theaters in New York City, and Bennett would reunite with his longtime musical partner, jazz pianist and musical director Ralph Sharon. He would also re-sign with Columbia Records during this period, and with more creative control, his 1986 release The Art of Excellence would reach the Billboard chart, his first album to do so since 1972.
During the next phase of his career, a remarkable turnaround occurred, wherein his style and vocals didn’t change but were introduced successfully to a younger audience, gradually. With his son Danny aligning him with a contemporary listening audience through bookings on evening talk shows like Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, along with the advent of MTV Unplugged, as well as benefit concerts, Bennett experienced a resurgent second act of his long career.
He remained loyal to the Great American Songbook, releasing several critically acclaimed recordings: Astoria: Portrait of the Artist (1990), Perfectly Frank (1992), and Steppin’ Out (1993). These “tribute” releases still allowed Bennett to feature his original style of crooning from the ‘50s era, sounding “new” to the uninitiated younger listeners while also garnering Grammy awards and chart-topping sales.
Throughout the new millennium, into 2021, Bennett would remain in demand with an expanding audience, finding unique opportunities to perform at contemporary and international festivals, the White House, and television specials, while also donating time and support for a variety of charitable causes. During this period, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honor under President George W. Bush, and performed for many benefits, becoming a headliner once again. Also, Bennett would continue to fill in the Great American Songbook, with tribute albums to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.
A major highlight in musical collaboration occurred in 2006, when Bennett was 80 years old. Duets: An American Classic was released, which was a series of songs performed with current and fellow pop star talent including Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Elton John, Sting, Bono, Stevie Wonder, and George Michael. Bennett performed live to sold-out audiences and received two more Grammy Awards, making this album the highest-charting recording of his career.
His intersection with pop star diva phenomena Lady Gaga occurred for the follow-up release Duets II in 2011, (other artists included Amy Winehouse, Faith Hill, k.d. lang, and Aretha Franklin) and a musical and personal friendship of mutual respect would develop between the performers. In a 2014 article in Parade magazine, Gaga credited Bennett with “saving my life,” as she was in depression over “being used” in the music industry. “I was so sad. I couldn’t sleep. I felt dead, and I wanted to stop singing…and then I spent a lot of time with Tony. He wanted nothing but my friendship and my voice.” Bennett gives high praise for Gaga’s singing ability. “What a talent, she’s up there with the very best singers,” he said, and to cement their musical partnership, they would record “Cheek to Cheek” together in 2014. Concurrently, many other connections with contemporary artists were fomented, including a Gershwin tribute album with jazz singer Diana Krall in 2018, while also adding live performances for newly recorded material and remaining very much in demand by audiences around the world.
Bennett’s transition and transcendence to rediscovery by a whole new generation of listeners, in a fickle and ever-competitive music industry, is remarkable. As a performer and recording artist in both the pop and ballad genre with a strong crossover into jazz, a 70-year span of musical intersections occur. With some professional and personal bumps in the road, he has still always maintained a high bar of excellence in the recording studio as well as a personal connection with live audiences spanning several generations. A self-proclaimed tenor, his intimate and signature-style crooning became the voice for interpreting the Great American Songbook. His jazz phrasings allowed the crossover into the music he personally fell in love with in the early ‘50s after hearing Charlie Parker.
In a 2019 JazzTimes interview, reflecting on teaching jazz singers, Bennett replied “You can’t teach the feeling. Either a singer is gonna know how to do it, or not. But you can’t teach somebody how to do it.” Bennett also remains enormously thankful and passionate about the early modern jazz musicians he was exposed to in New York City – just off of 52nd Street – in the ‘50s and how they influenced his chosen jazz phrasing style from that point forward. He also sees a bright and dynamic future for jazz: “I love what’s happening with jazz now. Finally, it’s being accepted as a great art form that came out of America, that was invented by African Americans in New Orleans. The biggest influence of all was Louis Armstrong. He taught all the musicians how to play properly. Dizzy Gillespie said, “without Louis, there would be no me.” Sadly, Bennett announced in 2021 that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and has ended his live performance career.