- Bennett Sings, the eight-time Grammy-winning vocalist
Tony Bennett, icon of American entertainment for over five decades, Tony Bennett captivates his audience with a commanding presence that communicates from the front row to the back of the house.
It is a special magic that only a handful of entertainers share — Bing Crosby had it, Sinatra had it, Ella had it, and all who earn the title of “entertainment legend” must have it — and Bennett has established his place among that illustrious company.
On Bennett Sings Ellington/Hot And Cool, his latest RPM Records/Columbia release, the eight-time Grammy-winning vocalist continues the rich legacy of tribute albums he has released in the last two decades and pays homage to a great American musician and true genius, Duke Ellington. The album follows in the jazz tradition of several of Bennett’s previous collaborative recordings with jazz greats such as Stan Getz, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, as well as the two albums he released with the late Bill Evans, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Tony Bennett And Bill Evans: Together Again.
Bennett Sings Ellington/Hot And Cool is a 14-track collection of timeless Ellington anthems in honor of the composer’s centennial anniversary. Bennett is backed by the Ralph Sharon Quartet with Ralph Sharon on piano, Clayton Cameron on drums, Paul Langosch on bass and Gray Sargent on guitar. The album is literally a “hot and cool” collection with orchestral accompaniment on the “cool” romantic ballads such as “Azure,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Day Dream,” “Prelude To A Kiss,” “Mood Indigo” “She’s Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and “Sophisticated Lady,” with arrangements by Jorge Calandrelli. Big band arrangements by Ralph Burns for the “hot” swing tunes complement “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Caravan,” “Do Nothing Till You Hear It From Me,” “In A Mellow Tone,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “I’m Just A Lucky So And So.” Guest soloists Wynton Marsalis and trombonist Al Grey are featured as well on “Mood Indigo,” and “She’s Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” The great trumpeter also adds a powerful solo on the album’s lone instrumental, “Chelsea Bridge.” Says Bennett of Marsalis’ riveting performance, “Wynton is a tremendous talent. He just showed up and played and gave an incredible solo performance filled with emotion.” This excursion into Ellingtonia is a fitting homage to America’s greatest classical composer.
The most prolific composer in the history of recorded music, Edward Kennedy Ellington’s contributions to American music were simply enormous and his towering influence was felt well beyond the realm of jazz. He wrote literally thousands of pieces of which hundreds became standards. Tunes like “Satin Doll,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” have been forever embedded in our cultural heritage.
Among the multitudes who were so profoundly affected by the Duke over the course of his glorious and celebrated career was one Anthony Dominick Benedetto of Astoria, Queens, New York. “I saw him as a kid at the Capitol Theatre,” he recalls. “I was a teenager at the time and I remember playing hooky from school to go see him. I had already heard him on record. My brother was a big jazz fan and he turned me onto Duke and that’s how I got into it.”
Bennett relates in later years, after his own career skyrocketed and he had the opportunity to perform with Duke, how the two became good friends. “I was on the road with Duke in the early 70’s,” he recalls. “We were very close… his family and my family were close as well. It was just a wonderful experience to be around him — I have never met anyone more alive. Every moment was important to him, everything was interesting to him, and creative. Duke was a very generous and warm person — each time he wrote a new song he would send me a dozen roses to mark the occasion. It was a wonderful gesture.” Bennett, who has a flourishing second career as a painter under his family name, Benedetto, painted a portrait of Ellington surrounded by roses that commemorates the composer’s gesture. The painting, “God Is Love,” is the singer’s favorite from all his works.
Although he has often expressed his admiration for jazz musicians, Bennett doesn’t consider himself a jazz singer. “I’ve never tried to be a jazz artist. I’m a popular singer who sings with an improvised feeling. I never tried to be part of the club of jazz singers but I consider myself a jazz entertainer. I know how to improvise and all through my career my musicians have been jazz artists. I love jazz more than anything. To me it’s the best music that has ever been done. Jazz is the only thing that we have created and contributed to the world as a culture.”
If pressed further to explain his natural affinity for jazz, Bennett takes his cue from Ellington. “It’s like what Duke used to say about categories. He used to say, ‘I’m not a jazz artist, I’m Duke Ellington.’ It’s up to the record companies and record shops to categorize everything. As a performer, the music just becomes a tool for me to entertain people. And I like to entertain people. I don’t have this philosophy of ‘I do this for myself and I don’t care if anybody likes it or not.’ I do it for everybody. To me, the greatest artists were people like Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Duke Ellington…. they were all giving people and they all gave to the audience. They were entertainers. And Duke Ellington was an entertainer. Besides being a great musician and composer, he loved getting in front of a band and swinging the thing out.”
The son of a grocer and Italian-born immigrant, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926, in the Astoria section of Queens. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he continued nurturing his two passions — singing and painting. His boyhood idols included Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, both big influences on Bennett’s easy, natural singing style. Tony sang while waiting tables as a teenager then performed with military bands during his Army enlistment in World War II. He later had vocal studies at the American Theatre Wing school. The first time Bennett sang in a nightclub was 1946 when he sat in with trombonist Tyree Glenn at the Shangri-La in Astoria.
Bennett’s big break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope noticed him working with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in New York City. As Bennett recalls, “Bob Hope came down to check out my act. He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’ But first he told me he didn’t care for my stage name (Joe Bari) and asked me what my real name was. I told him, ‘My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto,’ and he said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.’ And that’s how it happened. A new Americanized name, the start of a wonderful career and a glorious adventure that has continued for fifty years.”
His initial successes came via a string of Columbia singles in the early 1950’s, including such chart-toppers as “Because of You,” “Rags To Riches” and a remake of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” He had 24 songs in the Top 40, including “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me) and his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which garnered him the first two of his eight Grammy Awards. Tony Bennett is one of a handful of artists to have new albums charting in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. He introduced a multitude of songs into the great American Songbook that have since become standards for pop music. He has toured the world to sold out audiences with rave reviews whenever he performs. Bennett re-signed with Columbia Records in 1986 and released the critically acclaimed The Art Of Excellence. Since his 1991 show-stopping performance at the Grammy Awards of “When Do The Bells Ring For Me,” from his Astoria album, he has received six Grammy Awards for a string of releases including Steppin’ Out, Perfectly Frank, and MTV Unplugged, for which Bennett took home “Album of the Year,” Grammy’s top honor. In celebration of his unparalleled contributions to popular music with worldwide record sales of over 30 million, Columbia/Legacy assembled Forty Years: The Artistry Of Tony Bennett. The four-CD boxed set, released in 1991, chronicles the singer’s stellar recording career and documents his growth as an artist inspiring Time magazine to call the set “… the essence of why CD boxed sets are a blessing.”
Tony Bennett has also received an Emmy Award and a Cable Ace Award for his groundbreaking television special, “Live By Request…Tony Bennett” which featured a unique interactive format in which the viewing audience called in song requests to the performer live during the program, a concept created by Bennett that has become a regular special on the A&E network. Bennett has also authored two books, What My Heart Has Seen, a beautifully bound edition of his paintings published in 1996, and The Good Life, his heartfelt autobiography released in 1998.
Throughout his career he has participated in humanitarian causes and concerns. He has raised millions of dollars for diabetes research through the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation which established a fund in his name. His artwork graces the cover of the American Cancer Society’s annual holiday card, proceeds from which are earmarked for cancer research. He has worked with the Center for Handgun Control and has supported environmental issues through such organizations as Save the Rainforest and the Project for Walden Woods.
In the 1950’s, thousands of screaming bobby soxers surrounded the Paramount Theatre in New York, held back only by police barricades, to see their singing idol Tony Bennett. Today the children and grandchildren of those fans are enjoying the same experience. The 90’s have been as much of a heyday for the singer as his initial rise to international stardom. As The New York Times pointed out, “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises.”
Which is proof positive that if the music is good it will endure. From this century to the next, the legacy of Tony Bennett, like Duke Ellington’s, will live forever.