March 31, 2012

USA: At 85 years old, Tony Bennett offers a link to the history of popular music

MELBOURNE, Victoria / The Age / Entertainment / Music / March 31, 2012

An American classic

Craig Mathieson 

Tony Bennett sticks to his impeccable delivery of jazz standards, sometimes
with a modern touch from performers such as Lady Gaga.
HE IS the last emissary from the Age of Sinatra. At 85 years old, Tony Bennett offers a link to the history of popular music that would be daunting if the crooner wasn't so graciously modest about his long and storied career.

As it is, he predates rock'n'roll by more than a decade, having enjoyed his first No.1 single in America in 1951 with the ballad Because of You. Last September, his most recent album, Duets II, topped the album charts in the US.

There are 60 years between the two successes.

''I could have retired 14 years ago but I just do it because I love it,'' Bennett says. ''I love what I do - I sing and I paint - so I've never worked a day in my life. I feel blessed to make people happy.''

The New York City-born singer tours Australia next week, the latest in a succession of visits since the middle of the 1990s, when an MTV Unplugged album and a resurgence of interest in the music and fashion of the 1950s in America took his career back into the mainstream. Bennett suddenly became iconic to Generation X as well as their grandparents.

As ever, he will look the part, complete with dinner jacket and the impeccably folded silk handkerchief in the top pocket, and the set will adhere to Bennett's hits, such as 1965's I Left My Heart in San Francisco, and his bible, the Great American Songbook and the writers who helped define it: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

A good measure of Bennett's success stems from his determination to stay the course stylistically. There was only one nod to the contemporary pop market, with 1970's Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, an experience Bennett hated then and still regrets. Since then, through the lean times and the good, he has favoured orchestras and classic arrangements. Bennett has waited out trends and short-term worries.

''I was taught not to compromise; to sing the very best things you can,'' he says. ''Don't look down at the audience. Give them the best you can come up with. Never do a cheap little number that will be forgotten; sing songs that last was a great lesson and it paid off for me.''

On Duets II, the successor to 2006's Duets: An American Classic, Bennett's collaborators span Willie Nelson (the jazz standard On the Sunny Side of the Street) and Norah Jones (Kurt Weill's Speak Low), while the late Amy Winehouse - ''a natural jazz singer'', Bennett notes - made one of her final recordings with their take on Body and Soul.

The album avoids the cold precision of many duet projects by the simple virtue of Bennett being in the recording booth alongside his fellow vocalists - they're genuine duets, not two vocal parts digitally matched months later. His presence reassured some of the guests and excited others.

Bennett and Lady Gaga did multiple takes of Rodgers and Hart's The Lady Is a Tramp, with some of their improvised lines making the finished recording.

''Lady Gaga's wonderful and a very talented person,'' Bennett says. ''She's going to be around a long time. What I like about the group of performers I sang with is that they really cover the gamut - very professional, very prepared.

''When we finished, Lady Gaga quietly went around and personally thanked all of the staff who put our duet together.''

Bennett's life story was forged in events that are now referred to in the historical past tense. As a young man - then Anthony Benedetto - he served in World War II as a US Army infantryman fighting in Germany (he's been staunchly opposed to war ever since) and before that he had grown up during the Great Depression. It was a time when nearly everyone in the working-class Queens suburb of Astoria was out of work. His mother, a seamstress, was struggling to support her three children after Bennett's father died in 1935, when his son was 10 years old.

''My Italian-American family felt so badly for my mother that they would all come over every Sunday and we would entertain them,'' Bennett says. ''They would make a circle around us, with guitars and mandolins, and we'd put a show on for them. They were so encouraging to me about how I sang, that I said to myself, 'My family is telling me who I am.'''

As a hopeful young singer after World War II, it was comedian Bob Hope who encouraged Anthony Benedetto to Anglicise his name - as was the style at the time - but Bennett retains his strongest gratitude for Frank Sinatra, who, as a singing and acting idol in the mid-1950s, told Life magazine that Tony Bennett was the best singer he'd ever heard. Bennett already had success but Sinatra's imprimatur nearly doubled his sales.

In 2001, Bennett repaid a measure of that debt by helping found, along with his third wife, Susan, a former teacher, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a high school in Queens that specialises in the performing arts and has funding assistance from the couple's non-profit organisation, Exploring the Arts.

Bennett remains dedicated to the school - a few days after speaking with Life & Style he took actor Alec Baldwin there for a Q&A session - and the philosophy behind it, that exposure to the arts and a chance to express yourself creatively is invaluable to teenagers.

''From that one school, we now have 14 other public schools with performing arts programs,'' Bennett says. ''Eventually, we'd like it to go across the country and have more performing-arts schools than anywhere else in the world. They always cut the arts funding whenever there's a war but art is all about truth and beauty, and that's the enemy to a lot of people. Art civilises the world. The more art there is in a country, the more hopeful the country becomes.''

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