Bennett considered Count Basie and Duke Ellington the two greatest conductors he had ever heard, and with the great Milt Hinton on bass and regular Joe Newman Basie on trumpet, he swung easily and cheerfully on Ellington’s jazz standard. Bennett had something close to awe of the great jazz musicians, which may be why he never claimed to be part of this tradition. He often said “I’m not a jazz singer”. “I am a singer, I love jazz.”
Between 1951 and 1963, Bennett released 19 songs that reached the top 20 of the Billboard singles chart. Then the Beatles came along and the hits stopped. Davis recalls that the Columbia Records team paid Bennett to cover modern pop songs, and on the day he started a new record that included songs by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, Bennett vomited. The singer was annoying, though; “woo!” He steps in the middle of George Harrison’s “Something” and it’s almost disguised.
“Next time” (1975)
Bennett had an affinity for pianists: Art Tatum was a lasting influence, he had a long partnership with Ralph Sharon, and he made one of his best albums with Bill Evans. While no expert on urban boredom on the level of Sinatra, Bennett extracts all the bittersweet heartbreak from this song, written by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green for the musical “On the Town,” by singing along to Evans’ lyrical and discreet piano.
“I was lost in her arms.” (1986)
For most of the 1970s, Bennett’s losses were mitigated by drugs, divorce, tax problems, and depression. His son Danny then took over as his manager and returned to Columbia Records. Perhaps most importantly, Bennett reunited with Sharon and recorded his acclaimed comeback with piano, bass, drums and orchestra only. His voice was now squeakier, but especially in his version of Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in Her Arms,” modified by infusing his lower register with a sliver of wit.
“When the bells ring for me” (1990)
Bennett loved the Great American Songwriters, but eventually, the prolific singer had run out of pre-rock standards and needed to find material that was a bit younger. So Bennett was delighted when, in a restaurant one night, he heard piano bar Charles DeForest perform a song he had written, “When I Do the Bell for Me.” It became Bennett’s musical offering, thanks to its high notes, and when he sang it at the Grammys in 1991, he got a standing ovation.
“I kicked you out” (2021)
Biography-wise, Bennett wouldn’t have much in common with Cole Porter, a midwesterner born to great privilege. But Porter’s impulsive use of double and triple rhymes was perfect for Bennett’s rhapsody trick, so his second album with Lady Gaga belonged solely to Porter, released five years after Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And let’s be honest, it’s a kick to hear a 95-year-old gentleman sing, “Some, they might do cocaine.”