Was there ever a more likable, pure pop character than Tony Bennett?
Throughout his career beginning in the 1940s, Bennett, who died Friday at the age of 96, has maintained one mission, amiable and consistent. Never chase trends. He wasn’t defensive either. Instead, he’s allowed listeners—and, in recent decades, much younger duet partners—to come to him generation after generation. He welcomed them to a group of songs he admired, knew intimately and was happy to share.
Bennett sang old-fashioned pop standards, and the pre-rock canon was sometimes called The Great American Songbook. They are songs mostly about adult love, about courtship, longing and fidelity, with elegant rhymes and witty melodies that invite a bit of improvisation. He has recorded with orchestras, with leading jazz musicians, with big bands, and, for more than 50 years, with pianist and arranger Ralph Sharon and his trio. He was always unplugged — a simple fact that subtly recharged his career when he played “MTV Unplugged” in 1994.
Bennett’s voice made the technical challenges of his songs evaporate. As a young man, he demonstrated his semi-operatic range and dynamic control in early recordings such as “Street of Broken Dreams” from 1950. But he was not an old-fashioned singer; His swing sense was just as strong. And he understood that pure ingenuity could keep listeners at a distance. He quickly revealed a grain in his voice that made it earthy and friendly, understating its subtlety. Often, there was a playful wit in its phrasing; He was typing a note before the beat, as if he couldn’t wait to sing it.
There was always an easy power, a self-assured baritone foundation, in his singing. When he had a large band behind him, he brass easily enough to carry his own. But he didn’t switch between his songs. He was always attentive to words. his signature song, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” It has two melodic peaks near the end. the first on the “When I Get Home” line; He keeps “home” and gradually shrinks it with longing in its vibration, as if feeling the distance. Shortly afterwards comes “Your golden sun will rise for me” and he sings “Sun” as if he knew he would enjoy it.
Bennett’s long and drawn-out career has had its share of commercial ups and downs and passing record company pressures. As the 1960s ended, he was persuaded to record the latest pop hits on the “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!” Although he did maintain some dignity by putting lush orchestral arrangements behind songs like George Harrison’s. “something.”
After changing labels—and in the mid-1970s, he started his own short-lived but artistically rewarding label, Improv—Bennett returned to what he did best: singing standards with musicians who showed their jazz potential. Two albums he has made with Detective harmony pianist Bill Evans – “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album” (1975) and “Together Again” (1977), both simply duets for piano and vocal—illuminated testaments to the way Bennett never took familiar songs for granted.
He was 67 years old when he scored “MTV Unplugged” with Sharon’s trio and a guest appearance by Elvis Costello. It was a smart and satisfying move. Bennett became the great grandfather of pop music. Rock-hating Grammy voters jumped at their opportunity to award him his second album of the year (after “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), and current rock and pop artists took the opportunity to sing with him and learn from him. Duet albums (with KD Lang, Diana Krall, and Lady Gaga) and solo duet tracks (with, among many others, Aretha Franklin, BB King, Willie Nelson, Bono, Christina Aguilera, Queen Latifah, and Amy bar) explained how he was a constant admirer, companion, and plaything; Even the awkward moments are endearing.
In later years, with his voice lowered and amplified, Bennett used those qualities to project mature points of view. Slow motion version by Jerome Kern “The way you look tonight” The one that appears on the 2007 compilation, “Sings the American Songbook, Vol. 1,” is Bennett’s last day: a little rough, a little quivering and wonderfully fond, an affirmation not just of “tonight” but of a long-standing love. There is a sad chuckle as he sings, “That laugh that wrinkles your nose / Touches my foolish heart.” These words were written in 1936, and Bennett was still listening through every line, still getting close to the song.