Tony Bennett

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Tony Bennett Pencil Portrait
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Last update : 27/3/13

Tony Bennett is an artist who moves the hearts and touches the souls of audiences. He’s the singer’s singer and has received high praise from his colleagues through the years, including Frank Sinatra, who stated unequivocally, “Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business.” He is an international treasure who has been honoured by the United Nations with its Citizen of the World award, which aptly describes the scope of his accomplishments.

He’s been buried twice already in his lifetime; once completely in snow whilst fighting in Europe as a US soldier during the war and a second time when the ‘British invasion’ of the mid-60’s derailed his career for more than a decade leaving him without a record contract. Re-invented as a contemporary artist by his manager and son Danny, Tony has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance since 1994 and at 86 years of age, still packs auditoriums around the world. He is the last living embodiment of the golden age of American singing and when he passes on the party will truly be over.

In the lengthy career of any truly talented artist there will be disagreements with the marketing men who retain an ever watchful eye on the cash registers. Bennett had received advice from Sinatra backstage at the Paramount Theatre early on in his career in which he was encouraged to record only quality material that he believed in. This dedication made him want to try new songs and new kinds of music. However by the late 50’s, Columbia, wanted to repeat the style of his early hits. For some time, Bennett and Mitch Miller compromised by each selecting one half of the material to be recorded. Eventually, even this arrangement ground to a halt due in no small part to the overwhelming shift in popular taste amongst teenagers in favour of rock music. Many artists have struggled with changing tastes in popular music and the breathtaking speed in which these shifts occur. When he began his career, pop music appealed to all ages and Bennett has always asserted that young listeners were being taught that rock music belonged exclusively to their generation causing alienation in families. I have film of Bennett distributing awards at the 1965 New Musical Express Pollwinners Concert at the Wembley Empire Pool; he was in London at the time to record a television spectacular and the event organiser Maurice Kinn was presumably keen to have him on his show, albeit in a non singing role. The restrained applause for his entrance and his reported delight at being present at such a “great music festival” has a hollow ring to it. He’s a fish out of water, no doubt reflecting on the passage of only three years since “San Francisco” had elevated him into the company of stellar immortals, yet clearly now unsure of where his professional future lay. He was thirty eight but he might as well have been ninety eight. Amongst all the musicians performing that day, there was a rapport only with Paul McCartney. Peggy Lee excepted, Lennon had little time for Sinatra and his ilk and the screaming hordes vociferously echoed his sentiments. These conflicting views drove a wedge between several generations of musicians which I bemoan for I loved them all. My father taught me that there were only two types of music – good and bad and he would listen and enjoy much of my youth orientated material because he thought it had merit.

By 1970 and twenty years into his contract, Tony was told not to record any new songs. Company management wanted Bennett to cover top ten hits and soon thereafter, Tony ended his relationship with Columbia, formed his own label, and recorded on others. Eventually he could see no other option but to take a long hiatus from recording, staying away from the studios for some ten years before he made the 1986 album The Art of Excellence.

Looking back at this period in his life, hindsight suggests that Bennett was hiding behind a carapace, a very necessary suit of armour required to withstand the onslaught of fickle fads and fashions; after all some of the entries in the great American songbook had withstood wildly differing interpretations in each subsequent decade. Now nobody under the age of thirty was even remotely interested in them. Bennett was vulnerable but his comments, unlike Sinatra’s were guarded. Around this same period (1965) the Chairman of the Board returned home unexpectedly and destroyed a Rolling Stones album his son Frank Jnr had on the turntable before admonishing his son. Sinatra had been equally vociferous about rock’n‘roll whilst in Paris during the fall of 1957. He wrote a short article about American music that was printed in the French magazine Western World. This Associated Press article focused on Sinatra’s comments about rock ’n’ roll in the French magazine and appeared in many U.S. newspapers in late October 1957. The following two paragraphs are quoted directly from Sinatra’s article in the October 28, 1957, edition of the Los Angeles Mirror News.

“My only deep sorrow is the unrelenting insistence of recording and motion picture companies upon purveying the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear—Naturally I refer to the bulk of rock ’n’ roll”.

“It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact, dirty—lyrics, and as I said before, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth … this rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore. But, in spite of it, the contribution of American music to the world could be said to have one of the healthiest effects of all our contributions.”

Bennett’s break from recording coincided with some difficult times for the singer. He moved to California in the late 1970s and began using cocaine and marijuana, drugs that were an integral part of the celebrity party scene. This ultimately self destructive lifestyle was thankfully curtailed when Tony had a near death experience passing out in the bath tub. Coupled with the memory of Lenny Bruce’s drug-related death this incident scared Bennett into changing his habits.

Nevertheless, by this stage of his life, the demands of his career had led to two broken marriages, the first to artist Patricia Beech with whom he had two sons and his second, to actress Sandra Grant, who had borne him two daughters. He had already started his own record company and made two highly praised albums with Bill Evans. He moved to England for a while, where he once performed for the Queen. Back in the US, Bennett found only one regular gig in Las Vegas, but no recording deals or concert tours.

If further evidence were required that Tony was on skid row he became unable to equate brief moments of pleasure with a lifetime encased in cement at the bottom of a river. According to his biographer David Evanier, the story of a Vegas dalliance came to light after his 2011 unauthorized biography on the singer was published. If its true then Bennett probably enjoyed similar immunity to Sinatra with the mob. If he’d been a lousy singer he could have had his throat slit.\

His debts grew to the point of bankruptcy, and the IRS was trying to seize his house in L.A. Finally, in recognizing his own lack of business acumen, he called for help from his son Danny Bennett. Danny signed on as his father’s manager, and it turned out to be a smart move.

Tony Bennett rejuvenated his career by bringing back his original style, tuxedo and the Great American Songbook. He staged a strong comeback during the 1980s and 1990s, signed with Columbia again, and made two gold albums in 1992 and 1993, and developed a surprising and loyal following among audiences in their 20s and 30s. He also received a Grammy Award, the first since 1962. He again performed and recorded with Frank Sinatra, and extended musical collaboration to gigs with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Elvis Costello, and k.d. lang among others. Bennett also appeared as himself on MTV’s documentary series “Unplugged” in 1994.

His resilience and successful comeback became a sensation in the modern day entertainment industry. Bennett appeared as himself in the films ‘Analyze This’ (1999), ‘The Scout’ (1994), and ‘Bruce Almighty’ (2003). He has sold over 50 million records worldwide, was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (1997), published an autobiography “The Good Life: The Autobiography of Tony Bennett” (1998), received a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP (2002), and was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor in December of 2005. Honored by the United Nations with its Citizen of the World award, he is widely considered an International treasure. He re-married for the second time in 2007 to Susan Crow.

When 85-year-old Bennett’s album “Duets II” topped the Billboard 200 chart in September 2011 he became the oldest living artist in history to capture the peak position. Much of this career longevity can be accredited to his slavish devotion to the teachings of Pietro D’Andrea, who taught him the Bel Canto technique just after the Second World War. He still does the exercises that he learned back then every day and maintains that if he skips a day, then he knows it; two days and the band knows it; three days and the audience knows it.

I went for singing lessons myself in the late 80’s, not with any firm commitment to twenty years study in order to improve my range, but to protect my vocal cords during club dates. The lessons were an exhausting experience and at the end of each one, I would feel I had been punched several times in the midriff.

There are two parts of the body involved in the act of singing. The first is your head, which acts as the “amplifier” of the voice. The second is the mid-section, which contains the intercostals muscles and the diaphragm. Together the intercostals and the diaphragm form the “foundation” of good singing. You can have the most beautiful house in the world but if it has a badly laid foundation the house will eventually fall down, no matter how nice the house looks. The same holds true with voices. There’s a million different ways to make sound but unfortunately only one way to sing without damaging the voice. There are many singers who have great sounding “natural” voices, who have sold millions of albums, and yet they’re shredded their voices. Included within this list would be singers like Elton John, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, Tom Jones, Roger Daltry. The list goes on, and it’s quite common for many pop/rock/country singers to develop hoarseness or lose their voices entirely with nodes or polyps. Not singers who sing using Bel Canto however. Tony Bennett is a perfect example of the technique and an artist who still performs over 100 dates a year. This is an Italian technique, and for that reason a lot of the old Hollywood vocalists like Frank sinatra, Dean Martin and Andy Williams, all sang like this. Almost all of the world’s greatest singers over the ages have used the Bel Canto technique.

Recommended listening

Fifty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett (5 CD Box set 2004)

My introduction to the Bennett catalogue was in 1992 when I purchased “Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett.” It put the capstone upon the singer’s remarkable return to prominence by looking back at a legacy that had been overshadowed by the Sinatra legacy. The collection methodically traced his career from his first Columbia record, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” in 1950, through the hit singles and key or capriciously selected album tracks up until 1972.

In all honesty I don’t really play the first disc as my favourite period of Tony’s is the early 60’s which is ably represented on discs 2 & 3. I have also obtained a number of his more recent releases so the 2004 updated box passed me by.

“Fifty Years” departs from its predecessor by adding a fifth disc which, at 23 tracks, boosts the total from 87 to 110 songs. Bennett’s unlikely popular success during the ’90s and 2000s, masterminded by his son Danny, is surveyed with a parade of Grammy winners, including selections from 1993’s ‘Perfectly Frank,’ 1994’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ and MTV Unplugged,’ 1999’s ‘Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot and Cool,’ and 2002’s ‘A Wonderful World’ (amongst others).

For me personally, there are two major factors that keep Bennett’s recorded legacy a notch down from Sinatra’s. Firstly, the most striking difference between Bennett’s records and Sinatra’s, is the sheer unbeatably high quality of arrangements that Ol’ Blue Eyes was able to secure. Secondly, from an engineering perspective, I would have preferred to hear a greater level of compression and limiting on Tony’s vocals, for on too many occasions his singing appears to sit “on top” of the orchestration rather than resting comfortably within the overall mix.

Nevertheless, there is no better Tony Bennett retrospective at any price. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tony Bennett At Carnegie Hall – The Complete Concert (Live) June 9, 1962

It’s a well known fact within rock music circles that most “live albums” are not entirely ‘honest,’ for once the euphoria of the actual event has ebbed away then any subsequent review of the recording will invariably highlight sonic deficiencies in the artist’s performance. Apart from imbalances in the instrumentation, most of the problems can be attributed to untrained voices. As an audience warms up many artists make the mistake of singing more loudly in an attempt to compete against the raised sound level with the resultant effect being that their pitching invariably becomes sharp.

Engineers on live projects have to polish up on their diplomacy. Often they’ll need to negotiate with the house sound engineer for permission to set up extra mics, install splitters by the stage box, or tap into the front-of-house (FOH) console.

The most fundamental decision is whether to record in stereo or to multitrack. Most of the famous 60’s concerts were recorded “off the board.” This involves taking a feed from the stereo bus of the FOH (Front of House) console directly into the recorder. If the goal is simply to make a rough document of the performance, this should suffice. However, producing master-quality recordings this way is extremely difficult.

The main problem with board tapes results from the fact that the sound engineer’s objective is to get a good sound in the house, in other words for the benefit of the audience. Typically, in terms of today’s hi-tech rock concerts, this means bringing into the mix only those instruments that need reinforcing in the room (for example, vocals, keyboards, and kick drum) and omitting those that are loud enough on their own (for example, electric guitar, bass guitar, and the rest of the drum kit). In such a case, a direct feed from the console’s stereo outputs will produce a poorly balanced recording, with some instruments well represented and others barely represented at all.

The best way therefore to record off the board to a 2-track recorder is to set up an independent mix but back in 1962 this was deemed unnecessary thanks to the famed acoustics of the venue and Bennett’s peerless vocalising. The initial two track recording more than sufficed and recreated much of what was so great about the show in every respect. Put succinctly, Tony’s Carnegie Hall concert is one of the ten best live recordings of all time.

Recorded one week before the release of the “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” album that would catapult Tony Bennett’s career into the stratosphere, this concert album effectively sums up his accomplishments so far. Some of the hits — “Stranger in Paradise,” “Rags to Riches,” “Because of You” — are still on the set list (although drastically rearranged), but clearly he has found his true repertoire in reinventions of older material like “All the Things You Are” (the version here is exquisite), and good choices of new songs — he champions the team of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, and introduces “San Francisco,” which some in the audience already know. (Released as a single in advance of the San Francisco album, it was in the charts already.) And on the album’s original four LP sides, Bennett managed to find time for such experiments as an up-tempo “Ol’ Man River,” featuring percussionist Candido, a throwback to his innovative Beat of My Heart album. More than his greatest-hits collections of the ’50s and early ’60s, it gives a broad sense of Bennett’s work, and it does so in the format with which he’s most comfortable — live in concert.

The June concert was directed by Arthur Penn and Gene Saks. Carnegie Hall had not featured a pop performer until April 23, 1961 when Judy Garland recorded her legendary concert.

When asked about his favorite venue in a 2008 interview with Jerry Fink of the Las Vegas Sun, Bennett proclaimed “I love Carnegie Hall best of all.”

1962 was a landmark year for Tony Bennett. Despite the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s, his career had continued to develop, and the late 1950s saw a commercially and critically successful collaboration with Count Basie. This period culminated with the June 1962 Carnegie Hall appearance, his third at the Hall, that resulted in this celebrated live recording. 1962 was also the year he released what was to become his signature song — “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Soon thereafter, the British Invasion would happen, rendering Bennett’s style and recorded output old-fashioned almost overnight—precipitating an artistic and personal decline from which he would not emerge for a decade and a half.

For now, though, he had the Carnegie Hall audience in the palm of his hand throughout this marathon concert. Accompanied by an outstanding lineup that included Al Cohn on tenor saxophone, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Candido Camero on percussion, and his longtime pianist Ralph Sharon, Bennett worked his way through 44 songs and medleys. The original vinyl release, which i have, featured just 28 tracks on a double album. It was not until the 1997 CD release that fans could experience the full program.

Bennett continued to perform at Carnegie Hall on a regular basis—even throughout the difficult years of the late 1960s and 1970s—and his appearance alongside James Taylor in April 2011 marked his 25th time performing at the Hall.

Vinyl quality

As I’ve mentioned before I always remain polite in front of people who wax lyrically about digital technology and MP3 whilst pouring scorn on vinyl enthusiasts. I cannot deny that I have succumbed to the sheer convenience of the small silver looking marvel, but that’s about all I have done. If I could justify the expense, then give me vinyl anyday with a £600 record cleaning machine. Anyway, to date, I don’t think Tony’s Carnegie Hall album has had a repressing although the complete concert is now available on compact disc

Vinyl enthusiasts should perhaps keep a lookout for the album on\

The sound quality and durability of vinyl records is highly dependent on the quality of the vinyl. During the early 1970s, as a cost-cutting move towards use of lightweight, flexible vinyl pressings, much of the industry adopted a technique of reducing the thickness and quality of vinyl used in mass-market manufacturing, marketed by RCA Victor as the “Dynaflex” (125 g/m2) process, considered inferior by most record collectors. Most vinyl records are pressed on recycled vinyl.

New “virgin” or “heavy” (180–220 g/m2) vinyl is commonly used for modern “audiophile” vinyl releases in all genres. Many collectors prefer to have 180 g/m2 vinyl albums, and they have been reported to have a better sound than normal vinyl. These albums tend to withstand the deformation caused by normal play better than regular vinyl[citation needed]. 180 g/m2 vinyl is more expensive to produce and requires higher-quality manufacturing processes than regular vinyl.

Since most vinyl records are from recycled plastic, impurities can be accumulated in the record, causing a brand new album to have audio artifacts like clicks and pops. Virgin vinyl means that the album is not from recycled plastic, and will theoretically be devoid of these impurities. In practice, this depends on the manufacturer’s quality control.

Desert Island Discs (29/5/72)

A mere nine minutes from Bennett’s conversation with Roy Plomley survives in the BBC’s archive. Here’s the link:

Desert Island Discs (4/1/87)

Tony’s second appearance on the show, in conversation with longtime fan Michael Parkinson.

This recording is available in its entirety.

Recommended viewing

Tony Bennett – An American Classic (2006)

A salutory reminder of the golden age of light entertainment, when American musical specials ruled the television airwaves. On August 3, 2006, Tony Bennett turned 80 years-old and by way of a birthday celebration to further cement his legacy, NBC produced a one-of-a-kind television special in late 2006, called ‘An American Classic.’ It was a true rarity for network TV these days, reminiscent of the variety shows and musical revues more common to the medium in the ’60s and ’70s. There are biographical sequences on Bennett’s rise to stardom and “surprise” tributes from various celebrities (including Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro and John Travolta), which bridge ten different stand-alone duets with top musical artists. Interspersed throughout are several dance numbers and a few comedy sketches that work surprisingly well.

Director Rob Marshall, the man who brought the Oscar-winning ‘Chicago’ to the big screen, contributes a deft, well paced directorial slant to the proceedings whilst the choreography, costumes and visual pizzazz all add to the top-flight feel. A staggering guest list – highlights include John Legend dueting with Tony on “Sing You Sinners,” a lively “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” with Christina Aguilera, the surprisingly sexy “Just in Time” with Michael Buble, La Streisand herself, who kicks off the show with a sweet “Smile” and a tour de force on “For once in my life” where Stevie Wonder fires off some tasty harmonica soling.

Unfortunately, ‘An American Classic’ suffers from a mini-movie format, being rather episodic, and the special itself, now devoid of commercial slots, is somewhat truncated at only 42 minutes long. The DVD playing time could have been easily extended with the inclusion of the Bennett-McCartney sequence shot at Abbey Road studios and diehard fans may be a bit disappointed that the man himself is forced to share most of his screen time with so many other luminaries. But all is forgiven by the time he finally gets the spotlight all to himself, alone on an empty stage, for the closer “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” ‘An American Classic’ is the kind of musical tour de force sadly absent from the major networks these days and a televisual experience so many of us took for granted during its halcyon period in the 60’s and 70’s.

Recommended reading

The Good Life: The Autobiography Of Tony Bennett (1998)

Bennett’s autobiography, written in conjunction with Will Friedwald. He acknowledges his past failures as a husband, his near fatal drug addiction and career low points, but ultimately the book retains a resolute veneer that makes for a jaunty read without understanding the man any further. He’s a survivor but grasping the reasons why, when so many of his contemporaries opted for early oblivion, is the subject of much debate. You’ll find no real answers here.

Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art and Music – foreword by Mitch Albom, preface by Mario Cuomo – Tony Bennett with Robert Sullivan (2007)

Tony is an accomplished painter and this coffee table book combines copious examples of his work and reflections on his life. It’s not an unduly expensive book but as ever, I waited for the initial hardback run to find its way into the discount bookstores and there I duly found a copy for under £4. It always amuses my wife that I remove the front cover price sticker only to reapply it to the inside flap. Occasionally, visitors to my home wish to borrow items – it wouldn’t do for them to think I pay full price for everything would it? Frugality of course, can be taken to extremes; my father once purchased the complete works of Shakespeare for under a tenner but could never quite make out the exceedingly small print!

Tony Bennett began formal training as an art student at the School of Industrial Arts (now known as the School of Art and Design) in Manhattan and continued his studies with private studios and teachers throughout the years. A self-proclaimed “museum freak” he visits museums and galleries all over the world, especially during his extensive concert tours.

He makes time to paint every day, sketching the view from the windows of his hotel suite or out in the countryside’s to which he travels. He has a special bond with his ancestoral Italy, rendering nostalgic landscapes of Rome and Tuscan countryside. He also paints American scenes, leaving his heart in sometimes unexpected places, like Akron, OH or Clio in the California mountains.

His Central Park themes are evocative of his homelife – I love his “New York Yellow Cab” No 1” canvass yet his “Ol Blue Eyes” watercolour on paper is wildly impressionistic, a less than accurate portrait of Sinatra. In contrast, “Duke Ellington God is love,” another of his watercolours, works on many more levels including skin tones, visual likeness and contrast. The variability of these works is contrasted by his pencil portraits which are uniformly poor, his drawing of K.D Lang a point in question. It’s a surprising observation when delighting in the rich tones deployed throughout his Ella Fitzgerald portrait.


It’s his scenic views, “Night scene, Manila” and his “Venice 03” watercolours that most clearly demonstrate his talent. He captures the underlying motion of the single gondola wending its way through the still waters with impressive ease and an economic use of colours; in short, he makes you want to visit the many countries on view. The Kentucky Derby race is visually impressive yet I remain singularly unmoved by his self portrait on the facing page. Still, his work has found widespread acceptance and he boasts a roster of very influential clients so who am I to pass comment? Well actually, since I’ve started I’ll finish – the tone of the narrative is unduly gushing and reverential, a near perpetual salute to Reverend Bennedetto. The real Tony Bennett, as Bob Hope renamed him, is something else.


Tony Bennett Discography\

The ultimate Bennett discography compiled by Pavel Solakhyan with able assistance from writer Will Friedwald. The site includes Friedwald’s 2012 review of the new Columbia Tony Bennet Complete 73 CD box set.

This new collection features “On the glory road,” an unreleased album from 1962 yet omits a total of 57 Bennett recordings that presumably the singer does not wish included in the digital era. Nevertheless it remains a stunning box set.