When he was a young, aspiring singer, Tony Bennett's music teacher encouraged him to emulate instrumentalists, rather than other singers. That way, so the theory went, he would be more likely to develop an original sound.
Ask Bennett which musicians made the strongest impression on him, and he will name sax titans like Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and Lester Young. But one jazz legend towers above all others for him. "I would have to say the pianist Art Tatum, because he made each song a production," Bennett says, in an e-mail interview with the Current. "He was very dramatic and always did something unexpected that made you really pay attention."
The young Bennett similarly never lacked for drama. These days, at 77, Bennett is such an embodiment of understated cool that it's easy to forget what an ostentatious ham he was in his early days.
Under the studio guidance of cornball hit-maker Mitch Miller, Bennett stormed out of the gate with a string of big hits in the early '50s, mainly mushy ballads like "Rags to Riches," "Blue Velvet," and his pop recasting of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart."
A Depression baby who grew up poor in Queens, New York, Bennett nonetheless found cause for optimism in the buoyant pop songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. Early in his career, though, Bennett's mega-watt ebullience could take on the blinding glow of a hyper talent-show contestant. He usually sounded too eager to please, too driven to show off his pseudo-operatic pipes. Like his friend and ardent backer Frank Sinatra, Bennett didn't really emerge as a sophisticated song interpreter until well after his first flush of fame. For Sinatra, the turning point came swiftly, when he got his heart stomped on by Ava Gardner. For Bennett, the transition was more gradual.
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"I don't think I have ever changed my style consciously," Bennett says. "Usually the song itself and the arrangement will be the driving force behind how I will approach a song vocally. I am sure wisdom, maturity, experience are all the factors that have brought about changes, but in an unconscious way."
Bennett, like Sinatra a decade earlier, benefitted at the beginning of the '60s when he broke free from the smothering hand of Miller, then Columbia Records' A&R chief. Bennett had always identified with jazz, but his early recordings offered no evidence. Around the time of 1956's "Just in Time," however, you could hear Bennett beginning to relax and become more playful with his phrasing. This new, raspy-voiced Bennett used his jazz chops to great effect in early-'60s hits such as "The Good Life" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
Although he never matched Sinatra's iconic power, Bennett emerged as a kind of anti-Sinatra: Gregarious where Sinatra was moody; approachable where Sinatra was distant; benign where Sinatra was threatening.
To really understand the differences between them, you only need to compare their respective versions of the classic "The Best is Yet to Come," which both men recorded in the early '60s. Bennett's version is breezy and cheerful, about as lighthearted as pop music can be. Sinatra's version has an almost reptilian sexuality about it, a veiled taunt in the way he sings, "and I'm gonna make you mine." Bennett sounds confident, but Sinatra reeks of cockiness.
Like Sinatra, Bennett long viewed rock 'n' roll as an affront to good taste (saying in 1957: "`Rock` is just noise. It has three chords and two of them are wrong."), but he was also a self-effacing good sport, willing to dress like a geriatric Flavor Flav and trade juvenile gags with Chili Peppers' Flea and Anthony Kiedis at the 1993 MTV Video Awards. That bizarre appearance opened the door to MTV play for his track "Steppin' Out With My Baby," and an offer to tape an MTV Unplugged show in 1994. That album, featuring Bennett duets with k.d. lang and Elvis Costello, cemented his cross-generational comeback.
"I always like to go where the enthusiasm is, and it has been a wonderful experience in the last decade to have the MTV audience involved in my performances," Bennett says. "They never heard of Gershwin, Arlen, and all the great composers, so when they hear these songs they say, 'That's a great number. Who wrote that?'"
To his first generation of listeners, Bennett was the connective tissue between Sinatra and Bobby Darin, but in 2003, he stands as the last of a dying breed of American pop singers whose aesthetic was formed in the pre-World War II era. Little wonder that when Bennett makes movie cameos these days, in Analyze This (fulfilling a Mafia boss' favor by playing an analyst's wedding reception) or Bruce Almighty (fulfilling a suddenly omnipotent man's wish), he simultaneously goofs on, and celebrates his high-priest-of-pop status.
Bennett suggests that he has managed to maintain his enthusiasm for music by countering it with his other great creative passion: painting. Bennett says: "k.d. lang once said to me, 'Tony, you have the best life. You paint during the day and sing at night.' She is right, because that is exactly what I do and as a result I can always stay in a creative zone all the time and not feel burnt out.
"Music and art have many similarities. It's all about communication - what to leave out, what to put in. And yet, the gregarious nature of being a stage performer is very different from the quiet, introspective approach to painting, so the two balance each other." •