Tony Bennett: More Than a ‘Crooner’

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It was in the early ’60s. I was a copy boy at NBC News and the overnight disc jockey for the local radio station called and asked if I’d like to go on a boat ride down the Potomac River with his guest, Tony Bennett.

For several hours we cruised past some of Washington’s most famous landmarks. Tony let me take a picture of him, shirtless and with a big smile on his face. He later signed it and I have kept it framed in my office ever since.

Bennett, who died last week at 96, was labeled in various obituaries as the “last of the crooners.” He was more than a crooner. While many singers have nice voices, not all can interpret songs the way Tony did. His talent and material spanned several generations.

While in later years he teamed up with contemporary singers like Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Michael Buble, and even Willie Nelson, he never compromised on the quality of his work, or tried to become something he was not.

Proof of his cross-generational appeal was his “re-discovery” by college-age students. You could hear every word and the way he sang them contained a power to stir up emotions.

Consider just one of his many songs. “Fly me to the Moon” was sung by Frank Sinatra in an upbeat and swinging style. Bennett did it as a ballad and while each version has its own appeal, Bennett’s version is contemplative and, yes, more romantic.

In a 1965 interview for Life magazine, Sinatra paid Bennett the ultimate compliment: “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me.”

Me, too. Shortly after that boat ride, I took a date to see him perform at the Shoreham Hotel’s iconic Terrace, an outdoor venue that during the summer featured the best singers of the day. It was where I began to understand what real love and romance felt like.

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Tony Bennett was to music what Fred Astaire was to dance. It was said dancing partner Ginger Rogers gave Astaire sex appeal and Astaire gave her class. Bennett gave us class, good taste, and sartorial splendor. I never saw him perform in anything but a suit or tuxedo.

At one time I owned most of his albums. We can now call up his songs on Alexa and similar devices. Among my favorites was “The Many Moods of Tony,” which features a poignant song called “When Joanna Loved Me.” It’s about a lost love and his remembrance of what he felt when they were in love.

The lyric is by Paul Desmond: “When Joanna loved me, every town was Paris, every day was Sunday, every month was May.” But when Joanna left him, “May became December, but even in December, I remember, her touch, her smile, and for a little while, she loves me and once again it’s Paris, Paris on a Sunday, and the month is May.”

One gets the feeling he is singing about himself and identifying with listeners who have suffered a lost love, but who are comforted by the memory of what it once felt like.

Bennett had a vocal range that never reached falsetto. He never shouted. He didn’t have to in order to command attention.

Most people will likely remember him for what became his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Younger people would do well to consider this great preserver of the American Songbook with lyrics you can understand that have the power to touch one’s heart and soul. Not all “crooners” have that gift.

Because of you, Tony, there’s a song in my heart.

(C)2023 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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