He may have left his heart in San Francisco, but Tony Bennett dropped a big secret to The Los Angeles Times when he told the newspaper’s Pop and Hiss music blog of major plans to celebrate his 85th birthday in style. Pop and Hiss revealed that Columbia Records will soon release “a $500 box set of every album Bennett has ever recorded, dating back to 1950 [sic], an achievement the performer said he was especially proud of.” The singer confirmed these plans: “I’m thrilled about it, because 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, it won’t sound dated,” he said. “And that’s really important to me. I’m anti-obsolescence.” In actuality, Bennett’s first album proper was Because of You, a 10-inch LP released in 1952, not 1950, on the Columbia label, but who’s counting? This looks to finally be the set befitting Bennett’s stature that he should have had long ago, or his equivalent of the Frank Sinatra “suitcase” containing The Chairman’s complete Reprise recordings. Bennett’s association with Columbia is legendary; The Hollywood Reporter recently wrote of the label’s relationship to its “Five Bs”: Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Bennett has been with the company the longest, since 1950, although he departed for a time in the 1970s. Streisand’s run has been uninterrupted since 1962, the longest continuous artist/label tenure in the history of popular music, although her current agreement reportedly ends this year and will have to be renegotiated.
Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection includes every album Bennett has recorded over his lengthy career, including 11 albums recorded outside of Columbia Records. There could hardly be a more exciting announcement for Bennett fans, as wide swaths of his catalogue have remained out-of-print for decades. Indeed, due to his dedication to recording the greatest songs from the Great American Songbook, these songs have never dated, but only aged, more like a fine vino. The 73-CD/3-DVD box set contains every original album right up through 2011’s upcoming Duets II in a miniature LP replica jacket plus “never-before-heard rarities,” and gathers Bennett’s “non-album singles from the ’50s” as well as “outtakes and other delights,” according to the initial information released on the artist’s website. (Two such confirmed delights: Bennett’s first-ever recording, an Army V-disc of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” and an unreleased album preserving his 1964 Las Vegas debut, Live at the Sahara: From This Moment On.)
This celebratory box will cap a fantastic year for the eternally youthful performer. He recently wrapped recording his second volume of Duets, due in September, recording with a number of younger talents including Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow and the late Amy Winehouse. (Their duet on “Body and Soul” will be released soon as a charity single.) He’s also filmed a cameo appearance on CBS Television’s hit series Blue Bloods with duet partner Carrie Underwood. We’ll take a quick look at lengthy career of Frank Sinatra’s favorite singer and his history in box sets after the jump!
In an extraordinary career which began over sixty years ago, Anthony Dominick Benedetto has introduced on record some of the most beloved American standards of all time: “I Wanna Be Around,” “Blue Velvet,” “The Good Life,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” and of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He also popularized a number of songs coming from the worlds of stage and film, tunes like “Just in Time,” “If I Ruled the World,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Stranger in Paradise.” Columbia and Legacy first anthologized Bennett in box set form in 1991 with Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, spanning the period of 1950 to 1989. That four disc set received a fifth disc and a new title when it was reissued in 2004 as Fifty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett. That extra CD brought Bennett’s career up to date through 2002’s A Wonderful World, produced by T Bone Burnett. It, of course, included his triumphant “comeback” in 1994 when his MTV Unplugged album took home the coveted Album of the Year trophy at the Grammy Awards.
That wasn’t it for Bennett in boxed form, though. In 2006, Columbia and Legacy delivered The Classic Collection, collecting 12 original Bennett albums (most of which had already been released on CD) and one bonus disc of singles into a snazzy velvet cube. While this box contained many of Bennett’s best LPs, including The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album licensed from Fantasy, it still barely scratched the surface of the man’s discography.
By my count (with a little help from the official discography contained in Fifty Years!), Bennett has released 70 albums on the Columbia label (including greatest hits compilations and live albums, etc.) between 1950’s Because of You and 2011’s Duets II. Of these albums, over 50 of them are original studio albums (though some compilations contain unique material) and three are live albums (1962, 1971, 1994). Throw in his 1958 Count Basie collaboration on the Roulette label, two albums for MGM in 1972-1973, the Bill Evans set on Fantasy and five more albums (one live, four studio) on his own Improv label. I speculated back on August 5 that we were looking at nearly 70 discs, at least (1962’s Tony Bennett at Carnegie Hall, for instance, is 2 CDs in its expanded form), and that number has now been confirmed to be 73. Much of Bennett’s earliest singles catalogue has been arriving from U.K. public domain labels. Finally, these early hits will receive the official, remastered treatment. He hasn’t always spoken fondly of the Mitch Miller-directed material he was recording early in his career, so the inclusion of these tracks would be a most special treat for collectors. (There is no word yet of the inclusion of later singles.)
The collection’s three DVDs present Bennett’s 1994 MTV Unplugged, director Rob Marshall’s 2006 An American Classic television special, and the never-before-released Tony Bennett Sings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
In short, this is a box comparable to Legacy’s monolithic 70-CD/1-DVD Miles Davis: The Complete Columbia Album Collection, an indispensable guide to another jazz great. A 250-page book is included, containing each LP’s original notes and rare photographs, plus sketches and a new essay by Bennett. Some questions do remain, which undoubtedly will be answered in due time when official word arrives from the label. Will all non-LP singles be included? Will the albums be presented in mono or stereo? (All of Bennett’s albums had mono editions through 1967’s For Once in My Life.) Will bonus tracks carry over from those albums which have had expanded CD editions?
Whatever the exact contents, however, Bennett’s fans should start saving their pennies and counting down! Of those 50+ studio albums, more than half of them have never before been on CD. This includes the controversial Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! from 1969, which proves that even the singer’s least successful projects, indeed, have moments of sheer virtuosity. It’s not for nothing that Bing Crosby called him “the best singer I ever heard” and Frank Sinatra described him as “the best singer in the business, the best exponent of a song.” Louis Armstrong might have put it best, though: “If Tony Bennett, who swing sings wonderfully, can’t send you, there’s a psychiatrist up the street from you. Dig him!”
Tony Bennett’s The Complete Collection can be pre-ordered now at Bennett’s official website. It is available in two editions: a $399 standard retail set, and a $499 edition that will personally be signed by Mr. Bennett. The latter will only be available for order through December 24. In either configuration, this set offers bang for your buck, with each disc roughly averaging $5.25 in the standard edition and $6.56 in the signed edition. (The premium, of course, is for Bennett’s original autograph.) Happy 85th birthday, Mr. Benedetto. We dig you, and can’t wait to dig into the upcoming box set!