Welcome back to our Second Disc Holiday Gift Guide, in which we review some titles we might have missed over the past few weeks! The titles we’re spotlighting in this occasional series just might be candidates on your own holiday shopping list!
Tony Bennett’s heart may be in San Francisco, but his soul can be found in a case measuring roughly 11 x 5.5 x 5.5 inches. For within those modest dimensions is housed some 65 years of music, spanning 1946 to 2011, over 73 CDs and 3 DVDs. And modesty might be one of Bennett’s musical bywords. Nowhere in The Complete Collection (Columbia/RPM/Legacy 88697 87460-2, 2011) will you find the Bennett answer to “My Way,” “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” “I’m Still Here” or “If I Never Sing Another Song.” There’s no grand statement here of the singer’s individuality or longevity, though both qualities are very much in evidence. What you will find is Tony Bennett through good times and bum times, through jazz, swing, pop, rock and roll, blues, country, soul, cabaret, classical, and every other genre the consummate singer has touched upon in a legendary career. (He did sit out disco. Bennett, the recording artist, took a hiatus between 1977 and 1986.) The release of such a collection is long overdue. When Frank Sinatra was receiving complete box sets from RCA Victor, Columbia, Capitol and Reprise, and Dean Martin was being comprehensively collected by Bear Family, the catalogue of their fellow Italian-American compatriot in song was only being sporadically addressed. Now, The Complete Collection is here, taking in recordings for Columbia, Roulette, MGM/Verve, Fantasy, Improv and Hallmark. One of the most important bodies of work of any American musical artist is excitingly accessible, and preserved for generations to come in an attractive home. So why is there a slightly bitter aftertaste to such a sweet prospect? When we’re speaking of The Complete Collection, “complete” isn’t quite “complete.” But Bennett himself has long followed Johnny Mercer’s edict to “ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive” (recorded on The Playground, or Disc 64, for those keeping tabs on such things) so I’ll follow suit.
Many of the fine, recent complete box sets produced by the Legacy Recordings team have been packaged in smallish cubes; Bennett’s set (like a previous one for Miles Davis) comes in the heftier size, sturdy and with a flip-top lid. Each disc is presented in a replica LP mini-sleeve; each Columbia album is adorned with the same red label, with the musical-note-and-microphone artwork, and original record label logos are present for the non-Columbia albums, too. This is all well and good, but what’s within the grooves counts most, and boy, does this music count…and soar…and swing…and explode with sincerity, intensity and vitality. Just ponder for a moment now: there are 76 albums, or 1,020 songs, and over 20 of those albums are making their premiere CD appearances anywhere. Only Bear Family’s comprehensive, historically-minded sets for Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney and others can approach this set in scope and stature.
Those new-to-CD albums mark the most immediate revelations in The Complete Collection. Many of these albums deserve individual attention, but we’ll focus instead on two of the most eagerly anticipated. Hometown, My Town (1959) was recorded with arranger Ralph Burns, a familiar Broadway presence from his orchestrations of such musicals as Chicago (still heard eight times a week in 2011) and Sweet Charity. Despite its brief 6-song length, Hometown shows that Bennett was as capable as Sinatra at crafting a concept album encompassing a variety of moods. The bustling, brassy street sounds of “Skyscraper Blues,” an extended multi-part composition, make way for the lush, wistful tones of “Penthouse Serenade” and then the swinging, upbeat-in-the-face-of-angst treatment of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s standard “By Myself.” The juxtaposition of melancholy and optimism is made clear by the back-to-back treatment of “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and Bennett sums it all up tidily with “The Party’s Over.” The brief Hometown is a fine prequel to Astoria: Portrait of the Artist (1990, previously available on CD) on which Bennett’s New York background again informs each track as he revisits his past (“When Do the Bells Ring for Me,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “A Little Street Where Old Friends Meet,” “I’ll Come Home Again.”) He was supported on Astoria by the Ralph Sharon Trio and the orchestra of Jorge Calandrelli.
Another CD debut – actually, a debut, period – is the previously-unissued On the Glory Road (1962). The song “De Glory Road” was written in 1928, part of the same spiritual tradition as the more familiar “The Lonesome Road.” Bennett and his arranger and conductor Ralph Sharon built an entire album around this story of a former sinner who now sings “loud Hallejulah songs” on Earth. Though not often singing explicitly of salvation, doesn’t Bennett continue to this day to spread the gospel of the Great American Songbook? The other songs on Glory Road aren’t stylistically similar to the title song, but it does encapsulate Bennett’s positive message as the album’s closing track. Though three of the album’s cuts (“Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” “You’ve Changed,” “Caravan”) were salvaged for 1964’s The Many Moods of Tony, the balance remained unreleased. That later album’s title could have applied to the earlier album, as well, on which Bennett surrounds “De Glory Road” with the sounds of Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. No wonder he found salvation with a line-up of songwriters like that!
We continue our journey with Bennett after the jump!
The box set’s biggest asset, beyond having all (or mostly all; more on that soon) of the artist’s repertoire in one place, is the luxury it affords in putting Bennett’s entire career in perspective. The earliest albums find him still experimenting with that big, booming, often-bombastic voice in various settings, from intimate jazz (his work with sextet on his 1955 debut platter Cloud 7, or the stunning experiment in percussion-based vocal jazz on The Beat of My Heart two years later) to big band (two Count Basie collaborations in 1959) and lush orchestral backings (the Frank DeVol-arranged Long Ago…and Far Away, Alone Together and To My Wonderful One, all new to CD). Bennett quickly learned how to use those golden pipes in service of his interpretive skills. He teamed with sympathetic producers and collaborators, most notably the aforementioned Sharon, who understood the dynamics of his voice and were sympathetic to his search for the best material from the classic Tin Pan Alley tradition. It wasn’t long before songwriters were hoping that the boy from Astoria would be the one to introduce their newest songs, too. Among the songs (all present on The Complete Collection) introduced by Bennett on record in the U.S.: Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris’ “Blue Velvet,” Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Firefly” and “It Amazes Me,” Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt’s “I Wanna Be Around,” Sacha Distel and Jack Reardon’s “The Good Life,” Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster’s “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ornadel’s “If I Ruled the World” from their musical Pickwick; and of course, George Cory and Douglass Cross’ “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
There’s an air of familiarity to many of these discs, with Bennett offering distinct renditions of so many recognizable songs on a nearly-unbroken string of fine albums dating from the early 1960s. The Great White Way is feted on 1962’s Mr. Broadway (new to CD), while 1966’s The Movie Song Album pays homage to silver screen favorites. The comfort zone evaporates, though, once we enter the mid-1960s when Bennett found himself face-to-face with rock and roll, and specifically with its champion at Columbia Records, Clive Davis. Bennett had been on the label since 1952, and Davis made no secret of the fact that he found Tony Bennett’s career “in jeopardy” by the late 1960s, opining that “new vitality was needed.” Keenly instinctual record man though he was (and is), he failed to realize that Bennett was carrying the torch for unassailable adult pop with sophisticated collections of the finest songs of past and present. Titles such as For Once In My Life (1967), Yesterday I Heard the Rain (1968) and Something (1970) all offer criminally unknown recordings that made it all too easy to remember why Frank Sinatra called Bennett his favorite singer. But Bennett and Davis didn’t see eye to eye.
Within three years of 1969’s controversial Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! , the album which made the singer physically ill, Bennett was off Columbia. (Even that album doesn’t seem too bad in context; as inappropriate as “Little Green Apples” and especially a half-spoken, half-sung “Eleanor Rigby” are, the singer does well by “The Look of Love,” “Something,” “My Cherie Amour” and “Live for Life.”) A beguiling and odd take on Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” makes Summer of ’42 (1971) a keeper, while “Easy Come, Easy Go” from his label swansong With Love (1972) could have described the singer’s situation. (Both albums are new to CD, and fantastic treats, indeed.)
The Complete Collection chronicles the most difficult period in Bennett’s career, finding him shifting from Columbia to MGM then to his own label, Improv. He teamed with Bill Evans for the first of two stunning piano-and-voice recitals on Evans' label, Fantasy, before bringing Evans to Improv for their second collection together. Bennett receded from view after the collapse of Improv, though he remains rightly proud to this day of the label’s accomplishments. When he returned to Columbia (under new management!) in 1986, he was reinvigorated, not to mention clean and sober, and began the singular winning streak that continues to this very day. Bennett’s “comeback” album that year was entitled The Art of Excellence; deserving though he was of that title in 1986, he epitomizes it even more so today. It’s a joy to rediscover 1987’s Bennett/Berlin, a worthy successor to 1960’s Sings a String of Arlen as top-notch composer tributes. Perfectly Frank (1992) and Steppin’ Out (1993) carve out their own niche as performer tributes, to Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire, respectively. There’s not a weak title in the post-1986 bunch, and taken together, they make it clear that Bennett didn’t stop evolving as a singer at any period. He speaks today of working daily at his bel canto technique, and his commitment to his art remains inspiring. So why, then, is Tony Bennett using The Complete Collection to apologize for a few perceived missteps?
Much has been made of the fact that The Complete Collection brings together 52 albums released on Columbia Records plus 11 albums for the Roulette, MGM/Verve, Fantasy, Improv and Hallmark labels. Two of the remaining discs are devoted to rarities, and another six to a non-complete accounting of the Columbia singles. The rarities are a mixed, if invaluable bag, dating between 1946 and 2003 and bookended with renditions of the Cab Calloway favorite, “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The two rarities discs include some truly revelatory album outtakes (though yet more outtakes are are appended to the actual albums), duet collaborations, rehearsal takes, soundtrack performances, and live cuts. The six volumes here of The Columbia Singles don’t actually purport to be complete, and indeed, they aren’t; a number of early tracks have been eliminated. But there’s repeated mention in the box set of “ALL original albums” and “the first true complete albums collection.” And for reasons that are not divulged anywhere in the text contained in the box set, two albums on the MGM/Verve label have been edited. Bennett’s rendition of “O Sole Mio,” the Neapolitan standard composed in 1898, was a highlight of 1972’s The Good Things in Life (MV 5088) and a frequent selection in concert. It’s nowhere to be found. It’s equally puzzling that 1973’s Listen Easy (MV 5094) has been pruned. Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “If I Could Go Back,” from their film musical Lost Horizon, was one of the emotional centerpieces of the album with a powerful vocal bringing out the nuance in Bacharach’s passionate melody. On the album’s back cover notes, reprinted in full in the new box, Rex Reed mentions “that excitement explodes musically” on the song. Yet it’s been unceremoniously dropped. Both “O Sole Mio” and “If I Could Go Back” are referred to on the album artwork reproduced for this package. At 85 years of age and an American icon, what could Tony Bennett possibly have to apologize for, if it’s true that he (or his management) requested these songs removed? The omission of two songs out of hundreds only makes those songs conspicuous by their absence. For a musician who has been so unflinchingly honest in his life and his song, such unacknowledged revisionism is out of character, and a bit of an affront to the serious collector shelling out such high coin for this lavish, once-in-a-lifetime collection.
Less troubling are the other omissions, though they’re still unfortunate. Five early singles have been excised (“Let’s Make Love,” “Our Lady of Fatima,” “Kiss You,” “Beautiful Madness,” “Madonna, Madonna”) from the six discs of The Columbia Singles, likely because the singer has never grown comfortable with the material foisted on him by Columbia’s Mitch Miller. Two sides of a criminally-unknown 1973 Philips single (“All That Love Went to Waste” b/w “Some of These Days”) weren’t unearthed, and there are a number of other studio guest appearances, CD-era bonus tracks and one-off songs that haven’t made the cut. In the latter category is “I, Yes Me, That’s Who,” a beautiful Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song that first appeared on CD on Columbia House’s The Great American Composers: Sammy Cahn (Columbia 2CS 2 8165) and deserves another airing. Our lively discussion here at The Second Disc has produced a list of missing tracks which, to date, totals some 37 core studio tracks, 10 alternate takes and 10 duets. Yet of those tracks, “O Sole Mio” and “If I Could Go Back” are the two that stick in one’s craw. The target audience for a box with an MSRP of $400.00 is not the casual fan, but the dedicated collector who would (and did) realize that two albums have been abridged. Even if the performances aren’t to Mr. Bennett’s liking (and he, after all, may be his harshest critic), wouldn’t a note of explanation have sufficed in the place of excision? The vinyl editions of both albums still exist, and “O Sole Mio” has, in fact, been released on CD once before, on the Curb label. The only result of surreptitiously cutting these tracks from The Complete Collection is to mar an otherwise-remarkable collection that nearly lives up to its title.
There’s one other minor gaffe, as well. Bennett recorded “Sing You, Sinners” for the 1950 Columbia single 3-38989 as arranged by Marty Manning, and again for the 1955 single 4-40632, with Percy Faith’s arrangement. However, even though the notes and track listing indicates the 1950 track on Disc 3, the 1955 track appears in its place. (It’s heard a second time in its proper slot.) Word hasn’t been received as to whether this unintentional error will be corrected in future pressings, or any replacement discs offered.
The 250-page hardcover, CD-sized book that accompanies the box set is handsome, featuring a one-page introduction by Bennett and a ten-page career summation by jazz historian Richard Golden of George Washington University. The remainder of the book is dedicated to a discography of each disc, containing the original catalogue number, credits and front sleeve artwork. Executive producer Danny Bennett and producer Didier C. Deutsch have enlisted a number of mastering engineers (Dae Bennett, Vic Anesini, Mark Wilder and Maria Triana) for this giant undertaking, but the sound quality is uniformly crisp and detailed, and many of the earliest tracks sound pristine and fresh.
Even notwithstanding the frustrating omissions, perhaps a different title for this monumental collection was in order. Why? The Complete Collection will doubtless be out of date, sooner rather than later. For Tony Bennett shows no signs of slowing down; in his 85th year, his golden sun still shines on all of us.