Tribute today to International Singing Sensation Mr. Tony Bennett (Anthony Bennedetto, b. 1926). I worked for him as a factotum in the early 1990s (hence the above, taken at the Performing Arts tent in Beverly, Mass). I opened his fan mail, picked up his tux from the cleaners, oversaw travel and hotel arrangements, and like that. Not a bad job for a kid breaking into show business, but I quickly realized that I was in the wrong branch of it.
I have some less celebratory reflections of my time there, though people tend not to like to hear that. For those with the stomach for it, here it is.
But since it is his birthday, I will share some positive tidbits about him.
1. Bob Hope gave him his stage name. How cool is that?
2. His uncle Dick was a tap dancer in vaudeville.
3. I admire him enormously as an artist. He has been intensely serious about music his whole life. Tony is operatically trained and grew up studying the effects achieved by the popular singers of his youth such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby. Not only that (and this something you only ever hear truly serious singers say) he also studied the techniques of jazz musicians, especially horn players.
And he has enormous integrity. And not only that, but taste. That’s something that’s hard to articulate. For many years he had a bad rap in terms of public relations. At the time I started working for him (before the brilliant come-back orchestrated by his manager son Danny), because of his age, young people tended to lump him in mentally with the likes of Vic Damone and Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, out of touch, cheesy hacks. But because I got to help with the assembly of a “best of” CD compilation in the early 90s, I got to hear the whole Bennett canon, and I can tell you, there is scarcely a mis-step. He didn’t bend to stupid trends. There is no “Tony Does Disco” record. (OK he was talked into making one “contemporary” record in 1970, but to his credit he hated every minute of and it is also not that bad). As a rule, he chooses excellent songs and gives them heartfelt interpretations. (An exception might be, for me at any rate, ironically his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, but that maybe because I am sick unto death of it). My preference is for the early. Mitch Miller produced pop records: “Rags to Riches”, “Cold, Cold Heart”, “Because of You”, “Blue Velvet”, and “Stranger in Paradise”. That’s some lush, beautiful music and it takes your head to a completely different place. A kind of romantic, musical escapism. He has also said he loves Charlie Chaplin, and to me that makes perfect sense: a bittersweet nostalgia seems to color his best renditions.
Here’s another one I love, his 1963 hit, “The Good Life”
Go here for Tony Bennett, Part Two.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc