TONY BENNETT-AGE 95+

Tony Bennett – Age 95 +

On his 95 birthday, Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga performed at Rockefeller Center. They did another show the next day. The advanced billing proclaimed it was the last time Bennett would ever perform. His son/manager, Danny Bennett announced that because of age frailty his father official retired.He did not mention that his father was afflicted with Alzheimers.

A month later Tony cut an album, Love For Sale, with his costar Lady Gaga.

Singing was an important part of his life even as a youngster. At the age of 10, standing next to Mayor La Guardia, Anthony Dominick Benedetto sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in New York City. Even though he had to drop out of school to help support his family, he continued to try and advance his singing career by working as a singing waiter and going to amateur singing contests, landing a small gig at a club in Paramos, New Jersey, under the stage name Joe Beri.. And all the while trying to earn a decent wage in Hoover’s Depression, a impossible task that made him an outspoken Democrat from then on.

When he tuned 18 he was drafted. The War in Europe was nearing the end. The Battle of the Bulge had reduced the German Army to slow combative retreat. The Allies were pushing the Germans back to their Father Land but at a heavy cost on both sides.

In March of 45, Benedetto was sent to the front in the 255th Infantry Regiment which had suffered enormous casualties in the Bulge and continued as it led the assault to push back the Germans to their homeland and hopefully their surrender. As Tony described the fighting as a ‘front row seat in hell’. House to house, hedgerow to hedgerow. Wondering if the next dawn would be his last. Somehow he escaped death and physical damage. But the insanity caused Benedetto to be an outspoken pacifist from then on.

He took part in the liberation of a German concentration camp which held a number of American POW’s. This event only increased his hatred of War.

After VE Day he was assigned to Special Services as a singer. But that plum duty was short lived.

He was seen dining with a soldier, a friend from high school, a black soldier. Demoted for this US Military ‘crime’, he was transferred to a desk in Grave Registrations. Funny, while he couldn’t dine with a black soldier, he could work on registering the proper graves of the dead soldiers, irregardless of their color, religion, or any other difference. This punishment did nothing to change his acceptance of people.

Nor did he take a hiatus from his goal of being a professional singer. He found he could entertain in the military by using his old stage name, Joe Beri.

His discharge brought Tony a chance to advance his singing via the GI Bill. He enrolled in the American Theater Wing, a school more dedicated to the theater arts rather than the teaching of music, especially pop music. He was taught in the bel canto method, a 19th Century Italian Operatic school of preserving one’s natural voice and respecting both the melody and lyrics.

He adopted the style of certain musicians, like Stan Getz and Art Tatum. And he followed Frank Sinatra’s respect for the lyrics of the song, No crooning like Bing Crosby but crisp and precise pronunciation of each and every word.

There were several recordings done in a small studio under the Joe Beri name, but none took off. Pearl Bailey hired Tony to open her show in Greenwich Village where Bob Hope saw him and hired him to go on tour. Hope told Tony Benedetto to shorten his name to Tony Bennett. After sending a demo to Columbia he was signed by Mitch Miller to help fill the void of Sinatra who had just left Columbia.

The first Columbia recording for Bennett was a cover of The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, accompanied by the Marty Manning Orchestra and it had a modest success, which prompted Miller to have Bennett work with Percy Faith.

Faith, the originator of ‘easy listening’ put a lush arraignment to Bennett’s singing Because of You, a song from the movie I Was An American Spy. Ten weeks #1, way over a million record seller. Tony Bennett made the big time. With the song still on the charts, Tony did something he would be known for his whole career, he introduced himself to a brand new audience..

Hank Williams was the hottest C&W artist of the time, one of the best of all time. Williams had a big C&W hit of hisCold Cold Heart and recognizing the greatness of the song, Tony Bennett cut a recording of it. It helped both men because it introduced them both to a new audience, one of the first crossover hits. Williams telephoned Bennett and told him how much he loved Bennett’s version and he plays it on the juke box all the time.

Bennett’s next record, Blue Velvet was hit with the teenagers and he played a run of 7 concerts daily at the Paramount Theater in New York City. Rags to Riches followed and was another #1 hit. The producers of the upcoming musical Kismet got him to record A Stranger In Paradise, a song from the show in order to promote the opening. It worked and the recording hit #1 in Britain, and the young man from Queens became an international sensation.

In the late 50’s Ralph Sharon became Bennettt’s pianist, arranger, conductor, and confidant. Sharon persuaded him to get back to his jazz roots, to forget the sugary songs, and work with jazz instrumentalists like Herbie Mann and Art Blakely. Sharon worked with Bennett for over 50 years.

Sharon almost made a grave error when he put a copy of a song in a drawer and forgot about it; but years later, he remembered it and brought it out for a tour that included San Francisco. I Left My Heart In San Francisco far exceeding the boundaries of the Bay Area and became Bennett’s signature song.

(The first time I worked Tony Bennett was a two concert night at the Guthrie. When we were almost done with loading out the sound equipment, Tony came up to me, shook my hand, told me how much he enjoyed working with us, and asked if he and Ralph could work out something on the piano, which was still on stage. I told him fine and when the sound was loaded, I sat backstage and enjoyed a private Bennett/Sharon concert.

What I didn’t know at the time was Ralph Sharon had taken a few years off from working with Bennett to avoid the endless touring and this was their reunion concerts, and I was privileged to be present when they worked out details of what they thought should be improved on.

Although I worked Tony Bennett many times, one concert was at Orchestra Hall. In addition to Bennett, I worked Anthony Benedetto.)

The other talent Anthony enjoyed as a youngster was drawing, painting when he could afford oils and canvases. Once he became an established singer he turned to art as a relaxation. Oils, water colors, still life, landscapes, and portraits of the likes of Ellington, Fitzgerald, Gillespie, Mickey Rooney, and others.

His amateur status as an artist soon became professional. His works are in in galleries round the world. There are three hanging in the Smithsonian. All his art is singed Anthony Benedetto, which allows them to stand alone, not on the crutch of the famous ‘Tony Bennett’.

(The concert at Orchestra had a large screen and Anthony Benedetto’s art was projected on it as Tony Bennett sang downstage. I was on a spotlight in the balcony, a perfect place to see the painting projections and hear the Tony sing and Ralph on piano. What a treat!)

The 70’s s started out strong for Tony. He worked and recorded with jazz greats like Basie and Adderly. Then the Beatles turned the pop music into the dominating force. Bennett tried his hand at pop and failed. He tried acting and one picture convinced him to forget it.The one positive was he participated in the Civil Rights marches.

He moved to London and became a modest hit with his own talk show. Came back home and started a recording company which turned out two fine Bennett jazz records; but with no experience in distribution, the company failed.

At the end of the decade, Bennett had the IRS on his back along with a cocaine monkey. His music career was nothing except for gigs in Vegas. He almost died from a drug overdose. Enter his son, Danny, an aspiring musician whose career was going no where fast. He devoted his time to getting his father’s life and career back on track.

He convinced his father to stick to the American Standard tunes with jazz backing. Forget Vegas. Take gigs in small venues. He brought back Ralph Sharon just in time for me working the two of them at the Guthrie. Thank you, Danny.

While Tony’s fans stuck with him, he and his songs were unknown to the younger generations. To cure that Danny got him booked several times with Dave Letterman which led to MTV taking an interest and Tony Bennett Unplugged resulted in bringing not only young fans but also a contract again with Columbia, which led to Unplugged winning Album of the Year. Like Sinatra had done, he forewent recording singles and concentrated solely on albums.

Theme albums featuring the works of a great such as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong followed along with his Duets album where he sings with a pantheon of great singers like Barbra Striesand. Elton John, Paul McCartney, among others. Albums with just him backed up by jazz artists.

He teamed with the talented K.D.Lang in both recording and live concerts. Later he would do the same with Lady Gaga, who would sing with him in Duets II, along with the voices of Willie Nelson and Amy Winehouse and others.

As the accolades and honors poured in, he continued to work for charitable and political causes. He wrote two books of his memories. There was a big to-do when he reached the age of 80, little did anyone suspect he would have another 15 years of work ahead. At age 88 he recorded another Grammy winner, Cheek to Cheek, which debuted at #1 on Billboard. And he went on an extended tour with Lady Gaga. There was another big to-do when he reached 90, followed by a singles recording of Fascinating Rhythm which he had recorded a few weeks short of 69 years before. At the age of 95, he cut his album. Love For Sale.

The last time I actually spoke to Tony Bennett was New Years Eve, 2015, in an elevator at the Paris Casino in Las Vegas. Bennett was appearing that evening at the Paris where my wife and I were staying. Tickets for his performance had been long sold out and much too expensive for us anyway.

(I was going to the lobby when the door opened up and Tony Bennett got in.I offered condolences on the death of his friend, Ralph Sharon. Tony smiled and said it was a great loss after all those years working with his friend.

Tony asked if I knew Ralph; but the elevator stopped at Bennett’s floor and ended our conversation. He wished me a Happy New Year.

And as the door closed he gave me a thumbs up.

VINCENT- PAINTINGS OR PLAY

While on tour with Leonard Nimoy in VINCENT I discovered there’s a lot to like in art museums. A logical event since I was immersed in Van Gogh’s life and works. Every stop where we had time to kill I found an art museum. I don’t remember watching any TV or going to any movies during the tour, but I remember the art. I am partial to the Impressionists, I found I could get lost in the works of any genre.

We had a week in the Cleveland Playhouse, one of the best regional theaters. The Cleveland Art Museum on only a few blocks away and I visited it several times. It did not look like an art museum. It was one- story sprawling building set in a wooded location.

You couldn’t miss it because it had a large replica of Rodin’s The Thinker outside the building. It was too tall to fit inside. There was one thing it had, or didn’t have, that would set it apart from any other replicas of statue. There was a frisbee-size hole in it’s right buttocks, where someone had taped an M80 firecracker, lit the fuse and ran like hell.

At that time it also had two Van Gogh’s on exhibition, an Olive Garden painted in the asylum at Saint Remy and a wheat field painted in Arles. They hung on a wall in a small room of the museum. My first visit was midday following the opening of VINCENT the night before. Perfect time. Except for one other visitor, the galley was empty. Solitude heightens the appreciation of the arts, for me at least.

The other visitor was sitting on the center of the uncomfortable backless benchs that museums buy by the gross. There were two other benches, one on each side of the center, angled slightly giving the viewer a different view of the art. As soon as I came in, the man rose and plumped down on a side bench, leaving the center one for me without breaking his gaze at the works. He wasn’t faking his interest.

I observed him out the corner of my eye. He sat stooped-shouldered, letting his arms dangle loosely on his thighs and his head frozen in place as he stared at the paintings. He made no attempt to correct his posture. It wasn’t that he was overweight, it was that he was soft, dumpling- weight. He wore a dark gray suit, some sort of man-made ‘–lon’, the kind that doesn’t need dry cleaning or ironing. A Sears special, one suit coat, two pair of pants. I’d bet his wardrobe consisted of two sets of the same special, several off-white shirts and a rack of broad multicolored ties, the ones that camouflage soup stains. The uniform of a not-to-successful salesman. He was casting director’s vision of Willy Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Having my people-watching over with, I joined him in staring at the Van Gogh’s.

There are three types of museum art admirers. The first are like Willy and myself. Concentrators. The second are usually art students with a pen and art pad. They sit and copy the painting. The third are the I-own-the-world people, who stand close in front of the work blocking everybody else’s view and sometimes has the audacity lean across the velvet rope barrier and touch it.

Two 40-ish women came into the small gallery. Dressed to the nines, proudly walking on high stilettos, their hairdos fresh and expensive. In those days we referred to them as yuppies. The women were the third type of gallery goers. They communicated in loud voices, predating today’s cel phone users, compelling others to listen even if they didn’t want to.

‘…never thought he was that good an actor. I thought he was limited to Dr. Spock in STAR WARS.’

‘You mean Dr. Spock in STAR TREK. And much more handsome without the ears. I am so glad you invited us to go with you last night. All these years living in Cleveland and we never went to the Playhouse.’

‘We have season tickets for every opening night of their productions. And thank you for inviting me to the museum. Seeing actual paintings of Van Gogh really makes the play special. We’ve never been here. I wish our husbands were with us.’

‘If your’s is anything like mine, time off from work cries for golf. I’m on the board of the museum and my husband is on the board of his golf club. But maybe combining the play with seeing some of the actual paintings…’

‘Maybe…Say, I am up to seeing that wonderful cafeteria in the museum?’

‘And the special of today is quiche, spinach quiche. Let’s …’

They walked out, and I marveled at how fast they could move in those heels. I went back to admiring the Van Goghs. Willy had never moved so much as his head during their visit. I imagined staring at rude patrons’ backs was something a true museum aficionado gets use to.

One thing I never got use to was working on a show on an empty stomach. I left, foregoing the museum’s special for the day, and went to a small Italian diner a few blocks away where I knew there was a hot dago sandwich with my name on it.

After stage checks I gave my museum review to our troupe. They all said they would like to go and see the museum, especially the Van Goghs. Dennis, the tour manager and AV tech, had his wife with him that week, but maybe they would go.

The Nimoys, Leonard and Sandy, had friends to hook up with and of course interviews, ‘Now please when I accepted your request to interview me I said I would discuss the play, VINCENT, the man Vincent, and his work. I will not tell you anything about the unreleased movie, STAR TREK’, was his standard disclaimer necessary in almost all them. Amazing how he could say it in such a gracious way even though the question irritated him. VINCENT was his much needed break from the months of shooting the movie. But maybe they would find time to go to the museum.

And if Sandy decided to go without her husband, Eric, the wardrobe man, would go with her just as he always did when she wanted to go shopping. Otherwise Eric would use his free time to watch TV.

I went up to the lighting booth early. It was back of the balcony just like the Guthrie’s, and to get to it I had to walk through the lobby where the audience was milling around, talking, sipping on their drinks, waiting for the house doors to open, just like at the Guthrie.

‘I thought that was you. I recognized your hat,’ a smiling ‘Willy Loman’ said as he came toward me. ‘I need your help,’ he said, holding out his ticket. ‘I don’t know how to find my seat.’

‘Nothing to worry about,’ I told him. ‘When the ushers open the doors, just ask one of them to show you your seat. Did you enjoy the Van Goghs today?

‘Oh, I enjoy them every time I come to Cleveland, that’s once a month. I enjoy all the art in the museum. There’s so much to see. I go to other museums when I make my rounds but Cleveland’s the biggest. I don’t watch TV much and sometimes I go to the movies, but looking at paintings is my favorite pastime on my route.’

‘Your route? Are you a salesman?’

‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘I am a sales rep. Salesmen work for a company. I work for myself. I handle all kinds of things, from soup to nuts,’ he laughed at his interjection, ‘picking just what I like from all different companies. What I think my customers would like to sell in their stores. Small stores, hardware, some grocery, mostly small towns around Lake Erie. East to Erie, west to Monroe, south to Columbus. I do have some small store customers in some of the big cities…’

I asked one little question and got an encyclopedia definition of a sales rep and a travelogue of northern Ohio. He was really a talker once he started. I told him I had to get up to the booth; but when I went to leave him, he grabbed my sleeve.

‘I am so glad I found someone I knew. I’ve never gone to live theater except a school play. Those two ladies talking about this one gave me the idea, and then I read the paper about it…’

I wanted to be polite but I wanted to get upstairs. ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘I bet you will like it and it’ll be something else to do on your route. There’s probably a lot of theaters where you can see plays.’

He let go of my sleeve. ‘There you go now. Good idea. I’ll look for you here when I come back next month and tell you about the plays I went to.’

I walked away. I wasn’t about to get into that I would be long gone from Cleveland by then. Try to explain that I was with VINCENT, not the Playhouse.

After I gave the okay, from my point of view of the house, to open the doors, I stood and watched the audience filter in. I didn’t see ‘Willyl’. I figured he probably bought a cheap seat under the balcony. Worse place to watch a play but I thought he would still enjoy it, slumped forward in his intense position .

I felt better than usual because of the day’s events. VINCENT was accomplishing more than just entertaining for a short time. It introduced people like the two women and ‘Willy’ to forms of the arts other than just what they were into. How many in the theater would go to a museum after seeing this play? And how many were in the audience because of their interest in great artwork ?

And, of course, how many were in the audience because it was a chance to see the beloved Mr. Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy in person?

‘Gosh, I never knew he was such a powerful actor.’

AND THAT’S A WRAP