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.

BIG VAUDEVILLE (BOB)

hOPE IN VAUDEBILLE

Bob Hope walked down the steps of the Winnebago and asked us a question, and cracked us up.

In a previous post, BIG VAUDEVILLE (RED), I said that it had been my privilege to have worked two of the top stars of vaudeville. Red Skeleton was one. Bob Hope was the other. The steps they took to become household words in entertainment are quite similar. As far as my working them, I only worked them once, and I never threw a chair at Mr. Hope like I did at Mr. Skeleton.

Leslie, (Bob), Hope was born in a town just outside London, England. When he was four, his parents immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a stone mason. His mother, a cleaner, had been a light opera singer and dancer in England, and gave young Hope a foundation in song and dance, which he used at the age of twelve to raise money by entertaining people on the city buses.

He entered amateur dance contests while in his teens; and, after a short career as a boxer and other assorted jobs, he decided to try professional show business. His career lasted eighty years, and garnered over 1,500 awards from US President, the U.S. Military, Hollywood, numerous Social organizations, honorary college degrees, awards from Foreign governments, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, and another from the Vatican.

He began with a partner in a song and dance act. Tragedy hit when the partner ate a bad piece of coconut pie and died. It was suggested to Leslie that he change his first name, go it alone, and stress comedy. He developed a routine of one-liners in which he usually was the brunt of the joke. He spent the early years on stage and in vaudeville where he became a top name after many of the established stars left to work in films. He tried to get into the movies but failed the screen test. This blow to his ego made him work harder in vaudeville and in Broadway productions.

The year 1934 was an important one in his road to fame. He landed his radio show which lasted into the 50’s. He realized that he needed more than just a quick wit and delivery to make it go. He hired a talented group of gag writers and paid them out of his own salary. Unlike Red Skeleton, who created and portrayed the characters that populated his show, Hope hired characters like Jerry Colonna and Barbara Jo Allen to work off of. He also surrounded himself with guests like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and his close friend, Bing Crosby. As the Golden Age of Radio waned, he switched to the new form of entertainment, television. His weekly shows were hits and he augmented them with his popular Christmas Specials.

The carefully thought out, business-like approach that he used to insure his radio show would be a hit, became a Hope trademark in all his career moves both in his entertainment moves and his financial investments, which were often done in partnership with Bing Crosby. When Bob Hope died he was considered one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood.

His work in film started also in 1934. He made six comedy shorts that bombed. Walter Winchell, an important newspaper columnist wrote about one of them, ‘When they catch John Dillinger, they are going to make him sit through it – twice’.

Hope’s big break came about when Jack Benny turned down a role in the film THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 and it was offered to Bob. It came with a contract with Paramount so he moved to Hollywood. His work in the movie gave the studio faith in his being able to handle bigger roles.

This was his first time working with Dorothy Lamour who later would become an important part of six of the successful ROAD pictures. In another bit of irony, Bing Crosby, his co-star in the ROAD series, got his start in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1932.

The movie also gave him his theme song, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, a duet he sang with Shirley Ross. The melody was used as his walk-on music and also to close out his his shows. The melody remained the same but the lyrics were often changed by his writers to suit the situation.

He stuck to a tried and true formula in the films that followed. The self-effacing humor that marked his stand-up routine was expanded in his film roles, and he usually played a likeable coward. Two of the songs he introduced in the movies, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and BUTTONS AND BOWS went on to win Academy Awards for Best Song; and while he had a pleasant voice, he realized it’s limitations and never tried to compete with the ‘singers’ like Crosby and Sinatra. Both Crosby and Sinatra started out in movies doing light comedy, but both eventually attacked heavy dramatic roles and won Academy Awards in acting. Not so with Bob Hope. He stuck with his standard comedic roles.

The film work he did in the 40’s was his best. The first six ROAD pictures cemented his standing as a legit movie star. He made 54 feature films in his career, but not much of his later work matched his early works in the 40’s.

His fame in Hollywood came as much from his 19 times as host of the Academy Awards as from his films. His main shtick was the fact he had never been nominated for an acting Oscar. It worked and was funny – for a while, but it grew old and became the object of biting jokes by other comedians. The Academy did award him 4 Honorary Oscars, and the important Humanitarian Oscar.

When WWII broke out in 1939, Hope was on the liner, the Queen Mary. He volunteered to entertain the passengers to keep their minds off the bad news. His first USO show took place six months before Pearl Harbor. There were 57 USO tours he headlined to entertain the troops, a few in peacetime, but most in our wars from WWII through the Persian Gulf War of 90. In all, 50 years of entertaining our military personnel.

His hard work during WWII, both for the morale of the troops and the War Effort at home, did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by America. Our taking part in the U.N. ‘conflict’ in Korea was not as popular in America, and Bob Hope’s tours dropped in popularity at home; but certainly not among our military troops fighting and freezing in Korea. And then came Viet Nam!

There was a strong anti-war sentiment when we first entered this war, and it grew greater every week we were there. The criticism extended from the politicians that were responsible for bringing us, and worse, keeping us in this civil war in the jungle, to the troops that were doing what their country demanded of them.

The USO shows had lost their appeal back home. Hope’s USO tours were paid for by the government, but also by by his sponsors and his TV network, NBC, which aired them later as Specials. Facts that were not lost on Bob Hope’s growing critics. It became harder and harder to convince entertainers to go with him. By the time of the Persian Gulf War, he had to enlist his wife, Dolores, and granddaughter to accompany him.

His marriage to Dolores was one of the longest in the history of Hollywood. It began in 1934 and lasted until his death in 2003, albeit it had several shapely road bumps over the years. The Hopes had four children, all adopted, and several grandchildren. Bob died in his 100th year. Dolores lived to be 102. They lived in the same house for almost all their married years. I wonder if anyone has tested that house’s drinking water.

He could always keep his material up to date in everything he did; but because he used the same old schtick to bring it to his audiences, his popularity as an entertainer was not bringing in new fans. The young had no ‘memories’ to thank him for, and using a golf club as a trademark prop didn’t exactly excite them. The comedians that were taking over did it by using language and subjects that were offensive to the older generations of both audience and performers. Bob Hope was old hat.

When I worked Bob Hope, he worked mostly benefits, conventions, and in this particular case, a birthday party. And of course, played a lot of golf.

One of the local billionaires was turning 80 and was going to turn over the reins of his privately owned empire to a person to be announced at the party. His two daughters put together a real gala. They rented the St. Paul Civic Center for a week, put the matter in the hands of Paul Ridgeway, who was just coming off planning and supervising a Super Bowl festivity and the visit of the Pope John II to Denver.

Paul, one of my favorite people to work for, had about 20 local stagehands working about 16 hours a day, for 5 days preparing for this birthday party. And he hired Bob Hope to attend.

We were fine tuning everything for the event to start in a couple hours, when a Winnebago ‘dressing room’ pulled in backstage. The driver came down the steps and then held Bob Hope’ arm to help him down.

His appearance was a surprise to us stagehands, as it would be to the party goers, except for the family. Shadow Show Business. Celebrities come into town for a private function. Do their bit without the press or the general public aware that they are in town. In! Out! Pick up a nice paycheck. Over the years, I worked many in this Shadow Show Business, from oldies like Chubby Checkers to current big timers like Elton John. And of course, Bob Hope.

Hope, like Red Skeleton, had a reputation in the business for being a friend to stagehands and the other workers that made the business go. That day was no different.

Hey, guys,’ he hollered to us, ‘Got a question. Do any of you know the name of this old fart that I am suppose to be best of friends with?’ He cracked us up and then continued to entertain us.

They tell me you have been working day and night for almost a week to put this thing together. When I heard this, I figured I had better make sure the check cleared the bank. Wouldn’t be the first time I got stiffed on a gig. But you stagehands know all about that kind of stuff, don’t you?

This hoopla’s got a bigger budget than the ROAD pictures Crosby and I use to do. At least that’s what Crosby always told me, “just a small budget, Bob, didn’t have much left over to pay the actors a lot. I always got enough from each picture to splurge and get a new set of golf clubs. And Crosby would come and pick me up to go golfing after each picture, and he was always driving a brand new car. You don’t think…Naw, not Bing.

This morning the two daughters, a blond and a brunette, and the blond’s husband came up to my room for a Q & A session on what kind of thing I was going to do for their father, you know, my ‘old best friend’.

I said I would lay out some golf jokes. Everybody likes golf jokes. The son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. The other sister, the brunette, said her dad doesn’t golf. Well, then how about some political jokes. Again the son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. And the brunette said her dad didn’t like politics or politicians. I can do some movie jokes, I told them. Always goes over big at the Oscars. The son-in-law agreed. The blond smiled. And the brunette said she can’t remember her dad ever going to a movie much less watch the Oscars.’

Hope threw up his hands. ‘What does this guy do for a hobby?, he asked us.

Makes money,’ one of the hands hollered. We all laughed, including Bob.

Well,’ so the son-in-law said, ‘Just do what you want and when everybody laughs, so will Dad. He won’t get the jokes but he’s too nice a guy not to go along with the others.”

So I agreed, and then I said maybe for a throw in I’ll sing a couple old songs. He must like old songs. And the brunette pipes up and says, “If we wanted singing, we would have met Sinatra’s price”. So much for thinking I was their first choice.’

I was sitting backstage with a headset on so I didn’t hear any of Bob’s routine, but the audience must have enjoyed it by all the laughter and applause during it.

After the big announcement that the son-in-law would be the new head of the empire, the band began to play and the audience danced and took advantage of the many open bars. Bob Hope came through the curtains. We were trying to get ahead of the long Out, that couldn’t really start until the party goers left, by quietly tearing down what we could back stage.

Before Bob got in the limo, which had replaced the Winnebago, he thanked us and shook our hands.’I admire you guys,’ he said, ‘ You do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Not like me, getting paid for doing some old, old jokes and lying about being a good friend to the birthday boy. But heck, that’s Show Business.’

When he got into the limo, he rolled down the window and said to those of us close by, ‘It was no big surprise to anyone that my newest old best friend made the son-in-law his successor. He’s too old- school to trust his company to a woman, even if she is his daughter. But I will lay you odds that in less than a year, that nice son-in-law quits and the brunette takes over.’

Hope was right. He could read people just like he could read the FINANCIAL TIMES. The son-in-law wanted out and the brunette took over; and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone, except maybe her father, that she did so good and even enlarged the empire. And over the years she hired us stagehands for all her big public functions; and each time I saw her, I thought back on the time, I got to work Bob Hope. And when I think back I hear a song in my head, a song which countless of our military hear whenever they think back on having seen Bob Hope:

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

BOB HOPE