Welcome to another installment of Reissue Theory, where we reflect on well-known albums of the past and the reissues they could someday see. This installment spins what may be the least-loved Tony Bennett LP into a lost classic for the ages.
Today's Reissue Theory takes a look at one of the most reviled albums of all time, the LP thought to be the nadir of a career still going strong after nearly 50 years. The artist is Tony Bennett, and the album is Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! , released in the final days of 1969.
Long before he encouraged Santana, Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart to do the same, then-Columbia Records chief Clive Davis felt the solution to Bennett's declining sales in the rapidly-changing music biz of the late 1960s was simple: record familiar pop/rock songs. The result was an album that was and is anathema to the artist, who still can't resist the opportunity to bring it up in interviews. In 2006, he told writer Mitch Albom, "To this day, if I had my druthers, I would take it out of my catalogue." True to his word, the infamous Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! has never appeared on CD, but it's fair game for Reissue Theory. (The LP does have its own Facebook page, however!)
Bennett has volunteered that he got physically ill immediately prior to the first sessions for the album. The story goes that it led to his departure from Columbia and his founding of his own label, Improv, which had its greatest success with Bennett's artistically-triumphant collaborations with jazz giant Bill Evans. This is all true, but the break with Columbia was hardly lickety-split. Bennett actually remained at the label for another two years, with releases drawn from previous material continuing to appear through 1975. In 1972, he signed for two albums with MGM/Verve, continuing to pepper his releases with contemporary material. Only with the 1973 founding of Improv did Bennett return exclusively to the Great American Songbook he helped popularize, exploring his art as a jazz singer of the highest order.
So why a reissue of Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!? Could an album so vilified actually have worthwhile music to offer? Of course it does. Hit the jump to find out about those diamonds in the rough.
The LP's 11 tracks can be divided into a few groups. First are the much-disdained "rock" covers: George Harrison's "Something" and Lennon and McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby." The half-spoken, half-sung "Eleanor" may be the reason Bennett's stomach got so upset; it can accurately be described as Shatner-esque, and the bombastic arrangement does neither the singer nor the song any favors. However, "Something" was a more-than-decent cover; Bennett even recycled it as the title track of his next LP released just a few months later, Tony Bennett's Something. This album was personally selected by Bennett as part of his 1995 Master Series of CDs on Columbia, and remains one of the finest collections in his catalogue. "Something" is indeed a track ripe for rediscovery.
The majority of Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! is actually comprised of so-called MOR covers: an abridged version of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park," Bacharach and David's "The Look of Love," Norman Gimbel and Francis Lai's "Live for Life," another dip in the Lennon/McCartney songbook for "Here, There and Everywhere," Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" and Bobby Russell's "Little Green Apples." Bennett evinces a good amount of feeling for "Is That All There Is?," "Live for Life" and "The Look of Love;" none of those three would feel out-of-place on a Bennett compilation today. "Here, There and Everywhere" fares somewhat uneasily in a swinging treatment, but "Little Green Apples" is another of the album's true low points. It's not difficult to picture Bennett wincing at its treacly, homespun lyrics: "God didn't make little green apples/and it don't rain in Indianapolis in the summertime..."
There's then a Motown turn with a solid take on Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour;" as Bennett and Wonder have recently mulled a collaborative album, it would be wonderful to see Tony retackle this one. Bennett would be at home with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Broadway-born "Sunrise, Sunset" from 1964's Fiddler on the Roof but his rendition is marred by a rather bombastic arrangement; finally, Gene Lees (the jazz historian and accomplished lyricist/translator of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado," a.k.a. "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars") contributes an original, "Here."
Overall, the album isn't quite the disaster of legend, more just an uneven set of songs in arrangements not always ideal for the singer. In fact, many of the songs on the album weren't awful choices. These songs would in fact go on to become part of the standard repertoire, performed regularly in cabaret and concert, and on disc, alongside the Tin Pan Alley classics favored by Bennett; "The Look of Love," "MacArthur Park," "Here, There and Everywhere," "Something" and "Is That All There Is?" all spring to mind.
Although Reissue Theory is purely hypothetical, my desire is to create a collection of which even Mr. Bennett might approve, truly collecting Tony singing the greatest hits of, well, then. I'd drop "Eleanor Rigby" and "Little Green Apples" from the running order, along with the short take on "MacArthur Park" (best heard in its full, cake-in-the-rain grandeur) and the unremarkable "Here." (Isn't it a crime that Bennett, perhaps the finest interpretive singer still recording today, hasn't yet tackled more of Webb's deep catalogue?) This would kick off the album in style with the Bennett-approved "Something."
From Tony's 1970 follow-up, Tony Bennett's Something, let's add a strong version of "The Long and Winding Road" to the existing Beatles covers, along with Bacharach and David's "Make It Easy on Yourself," in which Tony cleverly tips his hat to another Bacharach/David song in the coda. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' warm "Think How It's Gonna Be" from their 1970 musical Applause can take a slot. (Bennett's version of that musical's title song still remains in the Columbia vaults.) Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave" and two more contemporary show songs from the pen of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever" (with Burton Lane) and "Coco" (with Andre Previn), deserve inclusion.
We'll then rewind to 1967's For Once In My Life, on which Bennett first started experimenting with then-current songs. From that album (released in 2009 as BGO CD 886 as a two-fer with 1969's I've Gotta Be Me) we'll extract Bennett's immortal rendition of the title song, another hit originally for Stevie Wonder and now a song equally associated with Bennett and Frank Sinatra, who too made the Ron Miller/Orlando Murden composition his own. From that 1969 LP, we can exhume fine versions of three more Bacharach and David songs, "What the World Needs Now is Love," "Alfie" and Promises, Promises' pensive "Whoever You Are, I Love You," as well another Andre Previn song, "(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls," co-written with his then-wife Dory for the campy 1967 film. I've got a soft spot for Walter Marks' "I've Gotta Be Me," but the bravura song really wasn't Bennett's style, despite its title protesting otherwise. So it alas won't make the cut here.
Finally, this being Reissue Theory, we can dig into the vaults; in reality, Bennett has largely left them under lock and key. From the Great Hits of Today! session of October 7, 1969 remains an outtake, "Michelle," which we'll restore. From a January 20, 1970 session, we'll take "I, Yes Me, That's Who," an utterly-unknown song from the pen of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn from an ill-fated Broadway musical, Look to the Lilies. Despite the show's failure, the song is a terrific, heartfelt ballad which deserved a future life. (This song has only seen release on CD as part of a Columbia Sammy Cahn compilation.) A more successful Broadway musical, Stephen Sondheim's legendary Follies, produced a standard in "Losing My Mind," which Bennett covered for his Summer of '42 album. That, too, can take its place in our lineup of great contemporary songs as can John Barry and Don Black's underrated movie title song "Walkabout," from the same album. Like "Losing My Mind," the Barry/Black song is as-yet-unreleased on CD. Interestingly, an April 3, 1970 session yielded an unreleased take of the Lennon/McCartney "Golden Slumbers." We'll pair Bennett's gentle Louis Armstrong homage "What a Wonderful World" with "Golden Slumbers" to close our revised CD on an appropriate note.
We all know that Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! didn't end Bennett's career, and may in fact have given him the impetus to obtain the artistic freedom he desired. For Verve, Bennett's 1972 LP The Good Things In Life would see him again recording standards by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer and Johnny Burke, alongside more recent songs in that vein by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, Cy Coleman, and longtime Bennett favorite Jobim. Oddly, the following year, he would briefly return to the Beatles catalogue with uncomfortable versions of Paul McCartney's "My Love" and less successfully, George Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)." He even recorded two songs from Bacharach and David's Lost Horizon, "If I Could Go Back" and "Living Together, Growing Together." Some of the Verve material can be heard on Curb's The Best of Tony Bennett (Curb CD D2-77747) but this era has largely gone unrepresented in the CD age. (Wide swaths of Bennett's long Columbia tenure - he rejoined the venerable label in 1986 - still remain sadly unavailable on CD.) From that point on, Bennett stuck to his resolute conviction that he would only record the best material most well-suited to his voice; he remains devoted today to preserving the Great American Songbook he so cherishes and continues, thankfully, to record with regularity as he wins over new generations of fans.
But for now, let's look back to a different time and enjoy Tony Sings The Great Hits 1967-1972...Regrooved! (And sorry, Tony, we have to keep the psychedelic cover, bell-bottoms and all; it's too groovy to pass up!)
Tony Sings The Great Hits 1967-1972...Regrooved!
- The Look of Love
- Here, There and Everywhere
- Live for Life
- My Cherie Amour
- Is That All There Is?
- Sunrise, Sunset
- Make It Easy on Yourself
- Think How It's Gonna Be
- On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
- For Once In My Life
- What The World Needs Now is Love
- Whoever You Are, I Love You
- (Theme from) Valley of the Dolls
- I, Yes Me, That's Who
- Losing My Mind
- The Long and Winding Road
- What a Wonderful World
- Golden Slumbers
Tracks 1-7 from Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! (Columbia LP CS 9980, 1970)
Track 8 from Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! session of 10/7/69
Tracks 9-13, 22-23 from Tony Bennett's Something (Columbia LP C 30280, 1970)
Track 14 from For Once in My Life (Columbia LP CS 9573, 1967)
Tracks 15-18 from I've Gotta Be Me (Columbia LP CS 9882, 1969)
Track 19 from The Great American Composers: Sammy Cahn (Columbia House 2C2 8165, 1992)
Tracks 20-21 from Summer of '42 (Columbia LP C 31219, 1972)
Track 24 from Tony Bennett's Something session of 4/3/70
For completeness' sake, "Eleanor Rigby," "Here," "Little Green Apples" and "MacArthur Park" should be available as download-only bonus tracks!