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.

Larry & THE DUKE (II}

Young Larry and his family had a hard-scramble life in the Dakotas. Young Edward lived in a fine house in a good neighborhood in Washington D.C.

The Duke’s father’s artist talent got him a good job making blueprints for the U.S. Navy, and before that served as a White House butler. Both young Ellington’s parents were well known pianists in D.C. and were hired to perform at both private and government functions. His mother specialized in parlor music. His father in operatic arias. Edward started his ‘playing’ the piano at the age of three. At the age of eleven he began to receive lessons from a prominent teacher.

His musical life of light classical began to change around the age of fourteen when he began to sneak into a pool hall to listen to the piano players beating out jazz, ragtime, blues, music that here- to -for he had only heard about.

It was around this time Edward got the nickname Duke. He was a dapper dresser and had casual air about him. His friends thought Edward just didn’t fit him and one of them titled him Duke. The name not only stuck, it replaced his given name.

The Duke composed his first of over a thousand compositions, Soda Fountain Rag. He was fifteen and could neither read or write music. He felt that his skill was not playing piano but composing. He worked hard to learn the mechanics of music. He also began to organize combos and to play at dances. Like his father, Duke was an exceptional artist, so much so he was offered an art scholarship to Pratt Institute; which he turned down because he believed strongly that his music would be his life.

Earning money by day as a sign painter, playing gigs at night. Soon his combo, The Duke’s Serenaders, was playing embassy parties and private functions in D.C. and nearby Virginia, playing for both Afro-Americans and white audiences. The Duke was on his way…

But like all over-night successes in Show Biz it was a lot of hard work and a lot of two steps forward, one step back; and often one forward, two back. The early 1920’s saw him and his ensemble hopping between New York and D.C. with an occasional stop in Atlantic City. His ensemble grew both in size and in quality. His compositions grew and various musicians in his band often took a different approach to a song. Ellington’s musical horizons expanded as did his popularity and respect as both a composer and as band leader.

In 1926, Irvin Mills, a prominent music publisher and jazz artist promoter, came to an Ellington club date to scout the Duke out as a possible client. He was so impressed he signed Ellington that very night. Mills only took 45% of Ellington Inc.. Sounds like a lot today, but it was an unheard of contract between a white agent and a black musician. It was usually that the musician got only 40% or less.

Mills relieved Ellington of the business end that robbed the Duke of time better spent with his music. Getting recording gigs, radio air play, films, and live performances at prominent venues.

On of these venues was the famous Cotton Club where the Ellington Orchestra was house band on several extended occasions, and later as guest artists. It was the Prohibition Era and also the Jim Crow Era. The performers were black and came in through the back door. The audience was white and paid big money while coming in the front door. Ellington was expected to compose and play ‘jungle music’. This segregation at the club ended thanks a lot in part by Ellington.

As the Depression took hold, the recording business suffered; but radio exposed the Duke to a growing audience and tours became the band’s mainstay. Ellington’s compositions during those years, like Mood Indigo and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, were big hits no matter who sang or played them. Then in 1938, a composer/arranger, Billy Strayhorn, applied to Ellington as a lyricist.

Strayhorn brought Lush Life, a song he composed as a teenager, to show the Duke a sample of his work. He also began to outline different arrangements of a few of Ellington’s work. Duke found his ‘left hand, his right hand’, the missing link in his musical journey.

Like his idol, the Duke, Strayhorn’s musical foundation was classical. His dream was to be a classical composer; but he knew that a black would never be accepted in the classical music world of the day, so jazz became his medium…until he discovered the jazz/classical compositions of Ellington.

The two worked as one, composing in the classical vein of suites. Strayhorn made new arrangements for Ellington’s standards as well as composing songs on his own. The first Ellington recording of a Strayhorn work was Take The A Train which became the signature introduction of the Ellington’s Orchestra. For the next 25+ years the two collaborated, one working on a theme and the other jumping in, until it became impossible to credit either one for the completed work.

The Swing Era/Big Band Era began in the mid-30’s and continued for a good ten years. While the white Big Bands, like Dorseys, Harry James, Glen Miller, took the lead in popularity and money, the black Big Bands, like Ellington, Basie, Cab Calloway, had good years also. Radio, juke boxes, recordings, even cameo in movies, combined to make it a golden age for big band jazz music, black and white. While most of the bands followed a common road, the Duke and his musical compositions took a more serious musical route, not relying only on the tried and true hits of the past.

This route took it’s toll on Ellington’s orchestra after WWII. Swing was replaced by Be Bop and promoters found that small groups, trios, quartets, brought in good audiences at much less cost. Great musicians, like Armstrong and Hampton, broke away from bands and fronted these combos.

It was the birth of Cool Jazz, aka West Coast Jazz. Dave Brubeck’s quartet with Paul Desmond. Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. Modern Jazz Quartet. And of course, Miles Davis.

The early 50’s brought a severe revolution in music. Teenagers became prime movers and R&B, Rock & Roll on cheap 45 discs introduced new idols like Presley, Little Richard, Pat Boone, to replace the likes of Sinatra and the Andrew Sisters. Hits and misses in the main stream were often dictated by disc jockeys, often televised, and the Top 40 on the radio was influenced by bribes called payola. Black recording artists were ripped off big time by their white ‘agents’.

Ellington had long fought against the three- minute cut on LP records and there was no room for Ellington’s vision of his music on a 45 disc.. His music needed much more space. His music needed an orchestra not a small combo. His genius refused to lower the bar.

In 1950 he and his orchestra stayed afloat thanks to a Europe tour, set up by the Black- Listed Orson Welles. They did 74 gigs in 77 days. During which he managed to compose music for a Welles’ stage production as well as performing a Welles’ variety show in Paris. While he never played any new personal compositions on tour he managed to finish his extended composition Harlem in his ‘spare time’.

Returning home, times were tough. Dance gigs and concert tours were few and far between. His royalties from his standards brought him the needed money to compose his serious music and to managed to keep his key musicians alive. But by 1955 there wasn’t a record company that wanted him.

And then in the evening of July 7, 1956, a string of unlikely occurrences combined to make a perfect storm that resurrected the career of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Ellington New Port Concert is as an important jazz event as the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert in 1938.

Ellington’s concert wasn’t at a famous venue like Carnegie Hall. It was on the last of a three day jazz festival, a relative new concept in music, at Newport, R.I.. Unlike Benny Goodman, who headlined the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, Ellington was just one of many acts. Unlike the prominent sidemen in Goodman’s orchestra, artists like Harry James on trumpet, Jess Stacy on piano, and of course, Gene Krupa on drums, the Ellington group had lost many talented members, although several came back for the Newport Festival gig, like the great alto sax player, Johnny Hodges. Goodman brought down the house with exceptional solos on the popular Sing Sing Sing. At Newport the audience erupted on a 1938 Ellington composition, Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, stuck in the playlist at the last minute, and the astounding solo of a journeyman tenor sax player, Paul Gonsalves. The dancing in the aisles at Carnegie was a spontaneous reaction by the audience. The dancing at Newport during the solo by Gonsalves was done an unknown platinum blonde in a black dress that jumped from her seat and danced her way to the stage.

Gonsalves was hired by Ellington six years before. He had played in many major orchestra but his many addictions cost him work.  Ellington liked having him around because Gonsalves was fond of going out in the audience to perform. The Duke nicknamed him Gypsy,also Strolling Violins.

And this night, Ellington specifically told Gonsalves to take the solo, even though the great alto sax, Johnny Hodges was with them that evening. Gonsalves’ solo lasted for an unbelievable 27 choruses. He was accompanied by Woods on bass and Woodyard on drums with an occasional prompts by Ellington on piano and Ellington’s ‘Dig in, Paul. Dig in.’The audience exploded and the finale featured a high trumpet solo by Cat Anderson. And Ellington and his band were reborn.

Time Magazine loudly proclaimed that fact and honored Duke Ellington with his picture on the cover. To date, Duke is only one of five jazz musicians to be so honored.

Columbia released the entire concert as quickly as possible. It not only became Ellington’s all time selling album, it became one of the jazz world’s best seller. Old time fans like Larry Howard bought one right away. Younger fans, like your truly, got one a few years later through the Columbia Record club.

The royalties from album and his new recording contract with Columbia afforded Ellington the luxury of composing as he always wanted to. He was free to break out of the three minute cuts of LP’s and 45”s. Free to devote time to suites etc. that are played by symphony orchestras world wide. And also the money kept his core orchestra members working, something the other black big bands couldn’t do.

The following year, 1957, was Ellington’s Shakespeare year. The Duke liked Shakespeare. Billy Strayhorn loved Shakespeare. After his success at Newport, he gave a series of concerts at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He was asked back for another concert in 57 and Michael Langham, the artistic director of the Stratford Playhouse, contracted him to write the incidental music for Langham’s production of ‘Timon of Athens’.

While performing there Ellington was persuaded by the staff at the theater to write a composition inspired by Shakespeare. The end result was his, and Strayhorn’s, 12 piece suite based on works of Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder.

The next big step that year was when he and Strayhorn broke the Afro-American barrier in Hollywood sound track. Otto Preminger hired them to compose the sound track for the movie, Anatomy of A Murder. The album won the Grammy Award for best soundtrack. Other movie soundtracks followed.

Suite after suite compositions, some with Strayhorn, others just by Ellington, followed right up to his death. The later years he was working on his Sacred Music suites, deemed by Ellington as his greatest works,. In 1973 his Third Sacred Concert premiered at Westminster Abby in England.

These later years were the busiest and most profitable years of his life. There were the recordings of his new compositions and collaboration recordings with other jazz greats. His old friendly rival, Count Basie, others like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrain, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra. His early songs, now standards, were recorded by him and others, producing royalties as never before.

But he never neglected live performances, after all it was live performances that started his career, and comprised a major portion of his life of music. He and his orchestra toured around the world during that period.

His last tour started in July of 1973 and continued thru to March 22, 1974. He knew this would be his last. His health was failing. Lung cancer. Several times events were rescheduled due to illness. One such was the two concerts at the Guthrie, that was moved from January 74 to March74. It was at this second concert when Larry Howard got the meet the Duke.

This is the second in the three part series. The last will follow in a day or so. In the meantime,

STAY SAFE