Note to the Capture: Tony Bennett, performing at a benefit in 2004, is to release an album of duets in September. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Mr. Bennett in the 1950’s, when he had hits like “Cold, Cold Heart.”(SonyBMG)
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: August 2, 2006
A quintessential Tony Bennett moment comes at the end of “It’s a Wonderful World,” the tender duet he recorded with K. D. Lang for their 2002 Louis Armstrong tribute album, “A Wonderful World.” After they swap greeting-card doggerel celebrating “trees of green,” “skies of blue” and “clouds of white,” Mr. Bennett remarks with a boyish enthusiasm, “Don’t you think Satchmo was right?”
Ms. Lang responds by crooning a final, dreamy “what a wonderful world,” whereupon her partner, speaking in the quiet, choked-up voice of a man visiting the grave of a beloved father figure, declares, “You were right, Pops.”
This gentle burst of affirmation melts your heart and reminds you that sincerity, a mode of expression that has been twisted, trampled, co-opted and corrupted in countless ways by the false intimacy of television, still exists in American popular culture. It can even salvage “trees of green,” “skies of blue” and “clouds of white” from the junk heap of pop inanity.
Mr. Bennett, who turns 80 tomorrow, has steadfastly remained the embodiment of heart in popular music. He pours it into every note he sings and every phrase he swings with a sophistication that deepens his unguarded emotional directness. In the polluted sea of irony, bad faith and grotesque attitudinizing that pop music has become, he is a rock of integrity.
That integrity has carried him through the ups, downs and ups of a musical career that now spans more than half a century. After the death of Frank Sinatra in 1998, Mr. Bennett immediately became the leading caretaker of the literate American song tradition that runs from Kern to Ellington to Rodgers. You couldn’t ask for a more reverent keeper of the flame.
Careers that last as long and have been as distinguished as Mr. Bennett’s have something to tell us about collective cultural experience over decades. It has been said that Sinatra’s journey from skinny, starry-eyed “Frankie,” strewing hearts and flowers, to the imperious, volatile Chairman of the Board roughly parallels an American loss of innocence. As Sinatra entered his noir period in the mid-1950’s, his romantic faith gave way to a soul-searching existentialism that yielded the most psychologically complex popular music ever recorded. Following a similar arc, the country grew from a nation of hungry dreamers fleeing the Depression and fighting “the good war” into an arrogant empire drunk on power and angry at the failure of the American dream to bring utopia.
Mr. Bennett is something else altogether. A native New Yorker and man of the people, he never strayed far from his working-class roots in Astoria, Queens, where he was born Anthony Benedetto. Although he came out of the same tradition of Mediterranean balladry as Sinatra, he retained the innocence and joie de vivre of his youth. Disappointment is not in his vocabulary. We don’t go to him for psychological complexity, but for refreshment and reassurance that life is good.
Believing in the power of art to ennoble ordinary lives, he sings what he feels with a rare mixture of humility and pride: humility in the face of the daunting popular-song tradition he treasures and pride that he is recognized as its custodian. Gratitude and joy, gruffness and beauty balance each other perfectly in singing that has grown more rhythmically acute with each passing year.
To attend a Tony Bennett concert is to find yourself in the presence of a performer who exudes a rough-hewn natural elegance, devoid of airs. Singing a song like “Mood Indigo,” he transmutes its sadness into the exuberance of a man who acknowledges having the blues but embraces resilience. He can still end a song like “Fly Me to the Moon” or “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” with an old-fashioned, quasi-operatic crescendo, but he makes these corny triumphal endings stick in your heart.
Late next month, Columbia Records will release “Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic,” which includes 18 of his old hits and favorite album cuts rerecorded with everybody from Bono (“I Wanna Be Around”) to Tim McGraw (“Cold, Cold Heart”). The album belongs to the dubious Grammy-seeking category of event records that includes “Frank Sinatra Duets” and Ray Charles’s “Genius Loves Company,” albums that aren’t about interpreting songs but are about pop royalty putting on a show of chumminess while strutting arm in arm down the red carpet.
Everyone involved in these orgies of mutual admiration pretends for the moment that there are no ethnic, generational or stylistic boundaries in music. Mr. Bennett handles his chores on “Duets” with a casual, offhand grace that goes a long way toward undercutting the ceremonial pretensions.
It is an official marker in a career that can be divided into three phases. The first is defined by four early-50’s hits: “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Blue Velvet” and “Stranger in Paradise,” which stand as the gorgeous final flowering of the high-romantic style invented in the 40’s by Sinatra and his arranger, Axel Stordahl. Pure and throbbing, Mr. Bennett’s voice adds a semioperatic heft to Sinatra’s more intimate crooning style. Male pop singing since then has never been this unabashedly sweet.
Phase two began in 1962 with the hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which rejuvenated Mr. Bennett’s flagging career. Singing songs like “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life” and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” the 30-something singer infused these more adult, bittersweet ballads with a current of worldly nostalgia.
At the end of the 1960’s, Mr. Bennett, like many of his peers, became an instant relic rudely shoved to the perimeter of the pop marketplace in the vindictive generational coup that thrust rock to the forefront of American pop. Leaving Columbia Records in 1972, he spent the next decade and a half in semi-exile, recording excellent but obscure albums (including two mid-70’s masterpieces with Bill Evans) for smaller labels before returning to Columbia Records in 1986.
Mr. Bennett’s resurgence under the management of his son Danny has been a double-barreled triumph of marketing and artistry: of marketing in the case of his “MTV Unplugged” record, which shrewdly cast him as an avuncular elder statesman of rock and won him the Grammy for album of the year in 1995, and of artistry in the deluge of lovingly conceived and executed tribute albums he has put out over the last decade and a half.
Those records include “Perfectly Frank” (a Sinatra tribute), “Steppin’ Out” (Fred Astaire), “On Holiday” (Billie Holiday), “Hot and Cool: Bennett Sings Ellington,” “Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues” (easy-listening pop-blues duets performed with stars like B. B. King, Ray Charles and Bonnie Raitt) and “Here’s to the Ladies” (his versions of the signature songs of 17 women, from Mabel Mercer and Blossom Dearie to Sarah Vaughan and Barbra Streisand).
This legacy equals Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook albums of the 50’s and 60’s, which were instrumental in codifying the American songbook. These albums honor the performers as well as the music they recorded. Listen to any or all of them, and you may find yourself nodding your head and agreeing with Mr. Bennett: “You were right, Pops.”