As Tony Bennett celebrates his 80th birthday, his ability to carry a song and work a crowd has not diminished since he began his recording career over 50 years ago.
In addition to his new disc, Duets: An American Classic (Columbia), which maintains a solid position on the charts, his label is having much of his music reissued. Perfectly Frank, originally released in 1992 as a living tribute to the fellow vocalist, mostly avoids the clichés of Sinatra's repertoire and instead takes on songs associated with the '40s-60s crooner such as Koehler/Arlen's "I've Got The World on a String , Cole Porter's "Night and Day and one of his best-known stage staples, Rodgers & Hart's "The Lady is a Tramp .
While the album is intended as a tribute, Bennett stamps each song as his own, backed simply by the Ralph Sharon Trio, with no orchestra or additional strings to enhance the music. The result is a subdued album that relies on the singer's voice and the talents of his backing musicians. On "Tramp , we get a showcase of Sharon's chops at the keys and drummer Joe LaBarbera's talents can be felt on Mercer/Bloom's "Day In, Day Out , as he plays almost by himself as the backing for Bennett's voice.
Sinatra used to perform Mercer/Allen's "One For My Baby, One More For The Road as a bluesy, boozy number, but Bennett takes a completely different direction, delivering it in a more upbeat, swinging fashion; the same goes with Brent/Dennis' "Angel Eyes , another ode to drinking to nurse a broken heart, this one serving as a showcase for bassist Paul Langosch (incidentally, the only musician from the disc that is still performing with Bennett).
One of the most beautiful moments in the disc is Cahn/Styne's "I Fall In Love Too Easily , a song best-known via Chet Baker. Accompanied solely by Sharon's piano, Bennett delivers a heartfelt rendition that makes the song his own.
Greatest Hits of the '60s are the songs that made Bennett's career and present his growth as a subtle performer. Listed in chronological order, he goes from the orchestra, backing vocals and other musical excesses of the '50s ("Put on A Happy Face ) to finding his sound by the early '60s, the decade that would see the the release of his best-known songs, including "I Left My Heart in San Francisco , the tune that would become what many - including the singer himself - consider his 'signature' song.
Many of the tunes are still part of his current set list and many have reappeared on the Duets album; some of them will be eternally associated with Bennett. Among the favorites are "I Wanna Be Around (arguably one of the best anti-romantic songs of all time), "The Good Life , "When Joanna Loved Me and "For Once In My Life , a song that he discovered during a trip to Detroit and picked up before Stevie Wonder did his own version (the two would eventually sing this one together on the Duets album).
The album also includes one of Bennett's few concessions to current (at the time) pop music: George Harrison's "Something . He is backed by an orchestra conducted by Peter Matz, with a saxophone playing the melodic motif. Although the delivery is honest enough, Bennett sounds a bit uneasy singing it and as it ends, he lets out what seems to be a relieved sigh. Bennett had been pressed by his label to perform more current material and he ceded to that pressure at first, then withdrew from the studio for years until he was able to make records in his own way.
As part of his 80th birthday celebration tour, he appeared on Dec. 2nd at Staten Island's recently renovated St. George Theater backed by a quartet of Lee Musiker (piano) , Paul Langosch (bass), Harold Jones (piano) and Gray Sargent (guitar). Bennett delivered a high-energy 90-minute set that included many of his greatest hits (most of them from the '60s album). He still has a surprisingly powerful voice even after all these years. As he sang, he explained how the tunes came to him. For example, "Cold Cold Heart was recorded under the insistence of the label and it went on to become an international crossover hit, despite the misgivings of its author, Hank Williams.
One of the show's highlights was "Fly Me To The Moon , which he sang without a microphone, taking full advantage of the fine acoustics of the packed room. It was at that moment that all in the audience were able to realize how powerful Bennett's voice is. "The Shadow of Your Smile was played with a bossa-nova arrangement that was reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto's 1966 version. He concluded the set in holiday fashion, performing "The Christmas Song (a Nat King Cole hit Bennett featured on his 1994 Snowfall album), easing into "How do You Keep The Music Playing , a tune that was (according to Bennett) a favorite of Sinatra's.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Time After Time; I Fall In Love Too Easily; East Of The Sun (West of The Moon); Nancy; I thought About You; Night And Day; I've Got The World on a String; I'm Glad There Is You; A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; I Wished On The Moon; You Go To My Head; The Lady Is a Tramp; I See Your Face Before Me; Day In, Day Out; Indian Summer; Call Me Irresponsible; Here's That Rainy Day; Last Night When We Were Young; I Wish I Were In Love Again; A Foggy Day; Don't Worry 'Bout Me; One For My Baby (And One More For The Road); Angel Eyes; I'll Be Seeing You.
Personnel: Tony Bennett: vocals; Ralph Sharon: piano; Paul Langosch: bass; Joe LaBarbera: drums.
Greatest Hits of the '60s
Tracks: Put On A Happy Face; The Best is Yet To Come; Once Upon A Time; I Left My Heart in San Francisco; I Wanna Be Around; The Good Life; This is All I Ask; When Joanna Loved Me; Speak Low; Who Can I Turn To? (When Nobody Loves Me); If I Ruled The World; Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words); The Shadow of Your Smile; For Once in My Life; My Favorite Things; Something.
Personnel: Tony Bennett: vocals; Jimmy Rowles: piano; Cy Coleman, Ralph Burns, Peter Matz, Frank DeVol, George Siravo, Don Costa, Robert Farnon, Johnny Mandel, Marty Manning, Torrie Zito: conductor.