It’s been a busy week for Tony Bennett, one of the few artists today for whom “legendary” truly applies. Bennett, 87, supported the release of Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964 as well as the digital release of his entire Columbia Records catalogue with a “digital day” for the books. Bennett engaged in a HuffPost Live Chat, took questions on Twitter via the hashtag #AskTony, shared videos on Facebook, and even participated in a reddit AMA. Here’s to the next 87, Tony!
Though named for one of the driest places on earth, the Sahara was where Tony Bennett made quite a splash in his first-ever Las Vegas headlining performance on April 8, 1964. Standing on the northern end of the Strip, the Sahara was a true remnant of Rat Pack style until it closed its doors for the final time in 2011, 59 years old and fated to become a trendy Beverly Hills-style resort. That same year, Tony Bennett turned 85 years young, showing far more resilience and longevity than the Sahara. To celebrate, Columbia Records, RPM and Legacy Recordings issued the career-spanning Complete Collection box set, and among its bonus material was the first-ever release of Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas 1964. Now, almost two years after that initial release, this vintage live album recorded by Columbia’s Frank Laico is available for the first time as a stand-alone purchase…and it’s one helluva swingin’ affair.
Though 1964 is destined to be remembered as the Year of the British Invasion, Bennett was at the top of his game (a position he hasn’t ceded at all in the ensuing almost-50 years!) plucking songs from the Hollywood, Broadway and pop songbooks in an era when it was still possible for an adult vocalist to create standards. In ’64 alone, the busy Bennett released three studio albums on Columbia, immortalizing such songs as “When Joanna Loved Me,” “The Rules of the Road,” and “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me).”
Accompanied by longtime musical director Ralph Sharon and his trio (with Billy Exiner on drums and Hal Gaylord on bass) as well as Louis Basil’s orchestra at The Sahara’s Congo Room, Bennett delivered a diverse set drawing in large part on his albums released in 1963 and 1964. One of the major pleasures of Live at the Sahara is hearing Bennett tackle less-familiar material in a live setting. Although his signature songs “I Wanna Be Around” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” occupied places of honor in 1964, as they do at his concerts today, the set is filled with treats you might not be so likely to hear in 2013. Among them is Tex Satterwhite and Frank Scott’s “The Moment of Truth” (from 1963’s This is All I Ask LP) which opens the show in a brassy one-two punch with Steve Allen’s scene-setting “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” More often than not over the course of the performance, though, Bennett made the 1,000-capacity showroom feel like a small jazz club.
There’s more Tony after the jump!
Some songs in the wide-ranging setlist were performed simply by Bennett and the Trio, and they’re among finest on the disc. Their slow-burning, slinky rendition of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” features Bennett’s jazz-singing chops at their finest; he even gives Sharon a piano solo on the intimate “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” (Both songs were recorded on the 1964 Bennett/Sharon Trio collaborative LP When Lights are Low.) Another trio highlight is Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s dark “The Rules of the Road,” which follows Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” – two “road” songs, both with the lyric “that’s how it goes.” The famously optimistic singer imbued Leigh’s sublimely disenchanted words (“So love is a hoax/A glittering string/Of little white lies…”) with a wisdom beyond his years. It’s a relaxed (and resigned?) counterpoint to “One for My Baby,” which Bennett took at a rather fast clip accompanied by Basil’s orchestra, and reprised after “Rules” to wrap up the mini-suite. (Whereas the ballad “One for My Baby” is taken in uptempo fashion, Fred Fisher’s “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” is delectably slowed down here to a simmer.)
Of course, any Tony Bennett recital is an appreciation of the songwriters that created the Great American Songbook, and this is no exception. The trio and orchestra deliver a hot “From This Moment On” from the pen of Cole Porter as well as a zippy, vaudeville-esque “Firefly” from Coleman and Leigh (Broadway’s Wildcat, Little Me) in considerably less jaded mode. In addition to “I Wanna Be Around” and “One for My Baby,” Johnny Mercer was responsible for the lyrics to the “brand new” song introduced by Bennett at the Sahara. “I’m Way Ahead of the Game” was written by Mercer and composer Robert Emmett Dolan for their short-lived Broadway musical Foxy, and Bennett’s studio version recorded for When Lights are Low was left on the shelf until 2011. With its references to Lady Luck and rolling dice, it’s a most appropriate tune for Vegas: “Whatever happens from here on out, I won’t be sorry that I came/I’ve had the kind of adventure I read of/I’m way ahead of the game!”) Of course, in 1964, bossa nova was also sweeping America, and Bennett seems supremely comfortable with the beguiling Antonio Carlos Jobim melody to “Corcovado,” or “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.”
There’s not too much between-song chatter, but nearly six minutes of the concert are dedicated to lighthearted banter with Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney and Danny Thomas (Bennett jokes, “Anybody who gets this microphone gets a royalty on this record.”). Also in a comic vein is a parody version of Bennett’s hit “Rags to Riches,” in which he spoofs his image as a singer of Italian songs and rhymes “Tony” with (you guessed it) “macaroni.”
Bennett concluded that April evening with a soulful reading of the still-fresh “I Left My Heart” paired with the deliciously spiteful “I Wanna Be Around,” bringing it full circle with a reprise of the opening “Moment of Truth.” But his indomitable spirit might be best embodied by his performance of Al Jolson’s oldie “Keep Smiling at Trouble (Trouble’s a Bubble)”: “When you’ve learned that life is what you make it/Then you know the secret of it all/Find your share of happiness/And take it/Make life a song/As you go along…” It could be Tony Bennett’s mission statement.
Live at the Sahara is a worthy companion to Bennett’s other live albums of the era, including the recently-issued Bennett/Brubeck: The White House Sessions Live 1962. The sound of Bennett’s voice at the microphone isn’t always consistent from track to track, which perhaps accounted for the album’s having been shelved. But the strength of the tremendous performance far outweighs the occasional audio deficiencies. This stand-alone reissue includes an essay by Robert Sullivan which was not included in The Complete Collection.
Following the orchestra’s final notes, the CD preserves the emcee’s post-show announcement over the clinking of glasses and silverware: “Now that the Congo Room show is over, I know a lot of you people are saying, ‘where can we go now?’ Well, may I suggest something that’s new and different? Don the Beachcomber on the third floor! The elevator is in the lobby next to the gift shop!” No, the disc can’t preserve the “American and Polynesian food” and assortment of tropical drinks, nor the dancing ‘til 3 a.m.! But Live at the Sahara exudes Vegas glamour of days gone by and artful bel canto from a singer who is still very much with us. Truly, it’s the next best thing to being there.