The air was thick with anticipation at Radio City Music Hall. The date was August 3, 2021 and Tony Bennett was set to take the Great Stage with his friend and confidante Lady Gaga for the first of two farewell performances. It was his 95th birthday. A 6,000-strong crowd, mostly masked and uncomfortably shoulder-to-shoulder, jammed the theatre's lobby for a final chance to see one of the twentieth - and twenty-first - century's greatest voices live. The announced time on the ticket came and went. One could hear the uncomfortable whispers, "Is he really going to come on?" as the minutes ticked on. Bennett had bravely announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis just months earlier, in February. "He's not the old Tony anymore," his wife Susan told The New York Times. However, she added, "But when he sings, he's the old Tony." The Radio City audience would soon find that out. Following Gaga's belated opening set, Tony Bennett strode onstage and began to sing with the same confidence, bravado, and swagger familiar to audiences since the 1950s. His opening song was Michel Legrand, Jacques Demy, and Norman Gimbel's "Watch What Happens": Let someone with a deep love to give/Give that deep love to you/And what magic you'll see/Let someone give his heart/Someone who cares like me...
Those of us in the audience that night will never forget the magic we saw - and indeed, we'll never forget Tony Bennett. The man born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926 gave his heart over and over again. He didn't just leave it in San Francisco, but rather everywhere around the world. Perhaps the last in the great line of Italian-American singers also including Perry Como, Vic Damone, Al Martino, Jerry Vale, Dean Martin, and his friend Frank Sinatra, Bennett remarkably remained current while never wavering from the musical foundation on which he'd built his career. With characteristic modesty, his final solo album was a salute to Jerome Kern, one of the songwriters whose work formed the basis of The Great American Songbook that Bennett had promised to preserve.
A glance at the Bennett discography - largely on Columbia Records, though with detours to Roulette, MGM/Verve, Fantasy, Improv, Hallmark, and Interscope - reveals a versatile voice comfortable with jazz, swing, pop, blues, gospel, country, soul, cabaret, and classical. Bennett's earliest recordings revealed a booming, operatic voice, and, he retained his big, climactic notes until the very end. But he carved out his place in the bel canto tradition thanks to his sublime experimentation. He sang intimate jazz with a sextet on his 1955 debut LP Cloud 7, and two years later, sang with a band anchored by percussionists on The Beat of My Heart. Before the '50s were out, Bennett had collaborated twice with Count Basie while still nurturing a more "traditional" vocal style on lush, orchestral releases such as Long Ago...and Far Away, Alone Together, and To My Wonderful One.
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 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." Unlike many of his Columbia contemporaries, Tony pushed back against the advent of rock. Though uncomfortable when Clive Davis convinced him to dip his toes into the water of contemporary pop-rock, Tony nonetheless delivered on such records as For Once in My Life, I've Gotta Be Me, and Tony Bennett's "Something." He famously felt the nadir of his recording career was 1969's Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today, but truth to tell, he did well by "The Look of Love," "Here, There, and Everywhere," and "My Cherie Amour." Tony Bennett couldn't help but be authentic. Still, with Davis encouraging him to continue in this direction, he left Columbia to explore new musical avenues.
After a brief stint at MGM/Verve, Bennett came back into his own with a pair of collaborative albums featuring the brilliant but troubled jazz pianist Bill Evans (one for Fantasy Records, one for Bennett's own, short-lived Improv label). The resulting LPs may have been the strongest of Bennett's career, with the pair intuitively complementing one another on beloved standards. Bennett receded from view in the late 1970s. No new albums appeared between 1978 and 1985 as the artist determined to conquer his personal demons. When he returned in 1986 with the uncharacteristically-immodest title The Art of Excellence, he began one of the most extraordinary comebacks in pop history. The title wasn't mere hyperbole. In recommitting himself to his art and to the music which he loved, Tony won an entire generation of new listeners. His 1994 appearance on the popular MTV Unplugged yielded a Platinum-certified album. Collaborations followed with artists including k.d. lang, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, and Lady Gaga. 2006's Duets: An American Classic earned double-Platinum status; its 2011 follow-up reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Platinum sales. With Gaga, Bennett released two studio LPs and a live set. Their second joint album, 2021's Love for Sale, won Tony his 19th competitive Grammy Award.
The same humanity, empathy, and eye for observation that guided Bennett as a vocalist also informed his work as a painter, and he often found solace in his later years in Central Park, painting the passersby on beautiful New York mornings. The United States Army veteran was also a prolific philanthropist, founding The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in his native Astoria, Queens. He won the United Nations' Humanitarian Award in 2006 and is recognized on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame for his tireless championing of civil rights. A friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bennett marched with Dr. King and performed for his fellow marchers alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr., Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Mahalia Jackson.
Tony Bennett touched countless hearts in his lifetime, including those of us at The Second Disc. Mike and his beautiful wife Nicole took their first wedding dance to Tony's recording of the Gershwins' "He Loves and She Loves." I'll never forget the kindness and generosity of spirit Tony exuded when I was introduced to him by my late friends Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson backstage at a Manhattan theatre after Anne's performance in The Madwoman of Chaillot. I felt like I knew him, and in truth, I think we all did. Tony gave all of himself to his music, baring his heart and soul for all to hear. He closed his final Radio City performances - indeed, his last concerts ever - with the inevitable "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." But he'd actually left a small piece of his heart with all of us, and we'll carry it forever. Addio, Tony...finché non ci incontreremo di nuovo.