Good songs last. So do good singers, and one of them is coming to town. He’s the guy Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra advised “not to sing songs that cater to one age group, but songs that appeal to everybody,” according to a 1995 Good Housekeeping magazine story.
Maybe because good songs last, said Tony Bennett, “explains why I’ve lasted too.

”Forty-one years ago, Sinatra told Life magazine: “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more.”

B.B. King, who appears at this year’s 27th Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in a sold-out June 28 show at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier de la Place des Arts, considers meeting Bennett to have been one of the highlights of his life.

In fact, they worked together. King, who turned 80 years old last September, appeared on Bennett’s Grammy Award-winning album, Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues. (Stevie Wonder, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and the late Ray Charles are also on that album.)
And as it so happens, Bennett, who turns 80 in August, will headline the same hall at the same jazz festival in Montreal as King will, but just two days later: June 30.

Seeing the two legends perform together on the same stage would have been a highlight, for sure. Indeed, the seemingly boundless energy these two octogenarians possess gives added meaning to the notion of timelessness.

Good music and those who perform it well truly last. In Bennett’s case, it has also meant crossing generational lines to reach new audiences and becoming one of the few artists to have new albums appear on the charts every decade for the past half-century.

How else could one have predicted that such classics as “Rags To Riches” and “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” introduced before and during the era of Elvis (whose recording of “Rags to Riches” charted at #33 in 1971) would enamour the MTV generation. But they did, as witnessed by Bennett’s wildly successful 1994 Unplugged Album, which featured both songs – and more, such as “Fly Me To The Moon;” set the trend for future duets (in this case, with the likes of Elvis Costello, who also appears at this year’s jazz festival, and his frequent collaborator, lang); and won the veteran crooner the Grammy for “Album of the Year.”

As The New York Times commented at the time, “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it.” The magic, said the Times review of MTV Unplugged, was not just in Bennett’s artistry and the classic repertory, but in “his ability to convey a sense of joy, of utter satisfaction, in what he is doing.”

Thirty-two years earlier, the parents of those kids of the 1990s were listening to that same guy with the crisp sartorial style, classic Roman centurion-like facial features and easy, smiling charm belt out his signature tribute to the Bay City, which earned him the first two of 12 Grammys (to date) for “Record of the Year” and “Best Solo Vocal Performance.”

That was 44 years ago, but his career, if you trace it back to his first nightclub appearance, dates back 60 years when he performed at the Shangri-La in the Astoria section of Queens where he was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on Aug. 3, 1926.

One of three children, his Italian immigrant father was a grocer who died of congestive heart failure when Bennett was only 10. To support the family, his mother took a job as a seamstress. His memories of childhood, though, were happy ones, with members of his extended family descending on the Benedetto home on Sundays.

As Bennett told the American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP’s) magazine three years ago, his aunts and uncles would form a circle around him and his siblings and clap their hands and the kids would sing. “There was never a touch of loneliness, never a thought of what’s going to happen to me. It’s funny that, in the middle of deep poverty, it was the warmest time of my life.”

Still, with money tight, Bennett had to find work while studying commercial art at the High School of Industrial Arts (now known as the High School of Art and Design) in Manhattan, and landed a job as a singing waiter.

But the Second World War was raging across the Atlantic, and, at the age of 18, Bennett was drafted into the United States Army, serving as a replacement infantryman in France and Germany.

He saw fighting on the front lines in the spring of 1945 as the Germans were pushed back across the Rhine, and was involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp at war’s end.

According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Benedetto, as he was known back then, helped entertain the American forces occupying post-war Germany and sang with the Army military band under the stage name, Joe Bari.

He carried that name back with him to the U.S. in 1946 when he enrolled at the American Theater Wing school under the GI Bill and was taught the bel canto style of singing. “My music teacher suggested I imitate musicians, not singers. That way, I’d have more of a unique style,” Bennett told AARP The Magazine.

So he vocally mimicked Stan Getz’s saxophone and Art Tatum’s piano, generating “unexpected phrases” that helped him improvise “in almost conversational tones,” said the magazine, “as he interprets a song.”
That created Bennett’s distinctive sound. With his “warm, husky tenor,” he varied timing and phrasing “with a jazz fan’s sense of spontaneity to bring out the melodies and lyrics” of a song effectively, wrote William Ruhlmann in the online All Music Guide.

Bennett’s big break came in 1949 when he was working with Pearl Bailey at a club in Greenwich Village, and Bob Hope dropped by to check out a show.
The only thing the legendary comedian apparently didn’t like was the young Italian-American singer’s stage name, Joe Bari, and, learning that the young man’s real name was Anthony Benedetto, suggested he change it to “Tony Bennett.”

Thanks to Hope, Bennett was booked at New York’s Paramount Theater where he played a staggering seven shows a day starting at 10:30 a.m. and where screaming bobby-soxers had to be held back outside by police barricades.

To stave off opening-night jitters in those early years, Bennett would, as he told Good Housekeeping, “soak in a tub filled with ice cubes to calm down.”

Soon, he would have a major record deal, thanks to Mitch Miller, head of artists and repertory at Columbia Records, who signed Bennett to the label in 1950. “Because Of You,” produced by Miller with orchestral arrangement by Percy Faith, became Bennett’s first big hit – reaching the top spot on the pop charts in 1951 and selling over a million copies.

More number one hits followed, including a cover version of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” the brassy sounding, big-band single “Rags To Riches” in 1953, and “Stranger In Paradise” from the Broadway show, Kismet.

By the late 1950s, Bennett was focusing more on standards and exploring jazz – recording albums with the Count Basie Orchestra (the first male pop vocalist to do so). He was also appearing on television, hosting an eponymous variety show as a summer replacement for The Perry Como Show in 1956.

Beyond the fame and fortune his concerts and records brought him, a nightclub performance in Cleveland in 1951 introduced Bennett to art student Patricia Beech, whom he married in a Catholic ceremony St. Patrick’s Cathedral a year later. Some 2,000 women wearing black dresses and veils showed up outside to mourn the loss of their pop idol.

The couple would have two sons: D’Andrea (Danny) and Daegal (Dae).
But when the 1960s arrived and Bennett released his famous ode to San Francisco, he evidently missed the message of his 1963 hit “I Wanna Be Around” and misinterpreted the point of “The Good Life,” released later.
“I’d stay up partying night after night because I thought that’s what every successful entertainer was doing. I thought life was about wine, women and song,” he told Good Housekeeping in 1995.

That fast-paced life took its toll.

In 1965, Bennett and Beech separated, and their divorce became official six years later. 1965 also saw Bennett part ways with pianist and musical director Ralph Sharon, whose stellar trio performed with Bennett at a celebrated concert at Carnegie Hall just three years earlier. (They would reunite and continue to collaborate, including on the MTV Unplugged album.)

With an absence of major hits, the 1970s weren’t much better for Bennett. He got married again, this time in 1972 to actress Sandra Grant, with whom he had two daughters, Joanna and Antonia, a jazz singer. But that union would also end in divorce.

His longtime relationship with Columbia Records also dissolved. And eventually, Bennett was without a recording contract and a manager, and was relegated to playing the casino strip in Las Vegas.

When the U.S. Internal Revenue Service began proceedings to take away his house in Los Angeles, he reportedly was near death from a cocaine overdose in 1979.

Bennett reached out to his two sons, who flew out to meet with him.
“He said, ‘Look, I’m lost here. It seems like people don’t want to hear the music I make,” Danny told AARP The Magazine in an interview. Danny became his father’s manager. Bennett downsized and moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.

Playing Vegas was out; appearing in concert at colleges and smaller venues were in.

By the mid-1980s, Bennett was back with Columbia Records – and soon, he would be introducing new, younger audiences to the Great American Songbook.

He appeared on The Simpsons and on MTV, which resulted in the Unplugged album that went platinum and resulted in him winning the top Grammy prize. Bennett told AARP that he was shocked by the positive reaction. “I realized that young people had never heard those songs. Cole Porter, Gershwin – they were like, ‘Who wrote that?’ To them, it was different. If you’re different, you stand out.”

Being in the right place helped too, added Danny. “We didn’t make it cool to like Tony Bennett. We just put him in places that were cool to be.”

In terms of popularity and accolades, the past 15 years have arguably been the best years of Bennett’s career.

On the Grammy side, he won the “Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance” awards for Perfectly Frank (his tribute to Sinatra) in 1992; for Steppin’ Out, his tribute to legendary hoofer Fred Astaire, in 1993; and for Unplugged, a year later.

The Recording Academy awarded the same prize to Bennett for Here’s To The Ladies in 1996, as well as for his tributes to Billie Holiday (1997) and Duke Ellington (1999) respectively.

This century, Bennett has so far won three Grammys for “Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.” In addition to Playin’ With My Friends” in 2002, he shared that prize a year later with k.d. lang for “A Wonderful World” (featuring 12 classics by Louis Armstrong in an album mixed by Bennett’s son, Dae and recorded over three days). Most recently, he won the 2005 album award for “The Art of Romance.”

If you’re keeping score, Bennett has earned 10 of his 12 Grammys after passing the age of 65 when many people retire.

He’s also won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and for television, an Emmy in 1996 for his A&E “Live by Request” Valentine special.

Over 50 million of his records have sold. (Sony BMG Music Entertainment plans to release a duets CD in September honouring Bennett’s 80th birthday that will feature Barbra Streisand, Bono, Elton John, the Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, Sting, Tim McGraw, Elvis Costello and, yes, k.d. lang)

Bennett is busy touring, appearing in Vancouver two days before his Montreal gig and has dates booked on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border almost to Christmas. In addition, he has had two books published: his 1998 autobiography, The Good Life (he came to terms with what that meant), and an edition featuring his paintings in 1996.

He takes his work on canvas seriously, and reportedly paints every day.
In fact, on a previous visit to Montreal’s jazz festival, Bennett asked to be taken to Mount Royal, where he spent the afternoon painting.

The fruits of his artistic labour sell for tens of thousands of dollars and have appeared in galleries around the world, signed “Benedetto.”

The United Nations, from which he received its “Citizen of the World” honour, commissioned him to do a painting for the world body’s 50th anniversary in 1995. Since 1994, a Bennett painting of a winter scene has been reprinted as a Christmastime holiday card and sold by the American Cancer Society to raise money for cancer research, education, advocacy, and patient-and-family service programs.

And, as a tribute to the man who called him the greatest singer, Bennett and his life partner, Susan Crow (40 years his junior and a teacher by profession), established the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts – a public high school in Queens – that opened in September 2001 through a charitable organization, Exploring the Arts Inc., the couple founded and for which Crow serves as president.

Bennett has been enjoying the good life for a while. As he told Good Housekeeping 11 years ago, a “standard song to sing and an easel on which to paint” is all it takes for him to feel good. “Through song and art, I can communicate what I believe is the essence of life – truth and beauty.”

“In my time, I’ve seen both go out of style – but they always come back in vogue again.”


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