In the late 1940s, Tony Bennett came in second in a talent contest; Rosemary Clooney beat him out for first place. ("We were the first American Idols, Bennett jokes.) Pearl Bailey happened to see his performance and invited him to join her show. Bob Hope dropped in to see Pearl Bailey and caught Bennett on stage. After the show, Bob Hope asked the young singer his name - Anthony Dominick Benedetto, answered Tony. "That's a little too long for the marquee. Why don't you try Tony Bennett?" Hope said and promptly took Bennett on tour with him.
It was a wonderland beginning to a career that is still going strong.
This month is the 60th anniversary of the recording of Bennett's first number one single, a little tune called "Because of You." After hearing the 85-year-old singer perform with his quartet at Jones Hall last night, it's easy to believe there might still be couple more chart toppers in him.
True, at first listen, he seems not to be as strong voiced as he once was, and yes, his dance moves are slightly stiff, but there's no denying Bennett's still got his pipes. He's just as smooth as he ever was, his singing is fluid and filled with nuances and dynamics. His timing is perfect; Bennett can find beats where other singers only hear silences.
And about three songs into the set, we realized his voice is just as strong as it needs to be. He performed with a tender touch, that somehow makes even the sad songs seem sweet.
His set list included "Maybe this Time," "I've got Rhythm," "Steppin' Out with My Baby," "For Once in My Life," "The Way You Look Tonight," "I Wanna Be Around," and of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Ripples of appreciation and applause went through the crowd as they recognized each tune.
He was backed by a tight quartet that had Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones on drums (Bennett introduced Jones as Count Bassie's favorite drummer).
Bennett scattered a few more stories about the famous people he worked with throughout the show. Early in Bennett's recording career, Mitch Miller, who had signed Bennett to Columbia Records some 60 years ago (Bennett is still with the studio), was having trouble getting the crooner to record a country tune. "He told me, 'If I have to tie you to a tree, you're going to record that song.' Eventually, I did and it became the first country tune to sell a million records internationally." Bennett says proudly. He pauses and goes on, "Then one day I got a phone call. It was Hank Williams. He said, 'Tony, what's the idea of ruining my song?'" The tune in question was "Melt Your Cold, Cold Heart," which Bennett then performed with help from guitarist Sargent.
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At one point he quipped, "I'm going to dedicate this song to Lady Gaga. She's a great singer, you know." Over the audience's laughter, he says, "I hope to make an album with her one day." (Bennett's been in hot demand as a duet partner for singers like k.d.lang and others who want to give a nod to the standards, but we're really, really hoping Gaga was a joke.)
Toward the end of his set, Bennett performed "Fly Me to the Moon" with no microphone. His voice reached the back of the balconly with no problem. (Try that Gaga!)
It was tempting to close our eyes and imagine we were back in a New York nightclub, with Bennett in his prime. But why bother? Bennett, no matter what it says on his birth certificate, is still a classy, superbly talented, smart singer.
We clocked the standing ovation after he left the stage at nearly three minutes. It was one of more than a dozen he received during the night.