Several years ago, a friend and I were discussing the seemingly resilient renaissance of Tony Bennett. At the time, the celebrated concert album MTV Unplugged that had re-established him as pop music royalty was already part of his legacy, countless TV appearances were underscoring his appeal to multiple pop generations, and a succession of new and reissued Columbia recordings were reaffirming a knowing jazz heritage that always has ignited Bennett's finest music and his most engaging singing.
But that didn't answer the burning question: Why did the appeal of this New Yorker with a 60-plus-year career seem so engaging? Why did a repertoire of jazz and pop standards, a library pillaged by everyone from the most pedestrian lounge singers to the most bankable rock stars, seem so vital when Bennett was at the helm?
We cited all the references, from his recorded affiliations with Count Basie and other jazz immortals to an awards-show appearance alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers to singing, in animated form, on The Simpsons. We looked at the numbers — specifically, the staggering 50 million recordings that Bennett has sold. We looked at the sheer historical scope of his career, which has placed the singer in performance before nine presidents.
But none of that explained the magic.
The Bennett dynasty, it seemed, came down to one word: attitude.
Not a brash or smug attitude, but a love of performance that beams every time a microphone is in his hand. In short, this 82-year-old son of a New York grocer lights up anyone and everything around him when he sings. But no one beams more during a Bennett performance than the man himself. In concert, he sings as if he's the happiest guy in the world
“I think stress and negativity is a real threat to anyone's well-being,” Bennett said last week in an e-mail interview. “I always try to keep things positive. I think it is important to always keep that in mind.”
The artist whom Frank Sinatra famously dubbed “the best singer in the business” was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens, N.Y. He attracted attention at age 10 by singing alongside New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in 1936. Since then, Bennett's storied career has led him around the world. And his signature song, the 1962 Grammy-winning hit I Left My Heart in San Francisco, might define the cool romantic command of his music, but Bennett has never sidestepped his love of New York.
Case in point: Last summer, Bennett was invited by another New York pop ambassador, Billy Joel, to sing a duet on — what else? — New York State of Mind at the closing of Shea Stadium.
“Well, I usually perform in concert halls around the world rather than stadiums,” Bennett said. “But it was a real thrill to be onstage with 59,000 people in the audience.”
Rightly termed “a rock of integrity” in a New York Times commentary published just before the singer's 80th birthday in 2006, Bennett has performed for the queen of England and sung duets with k.d. lang and Elvis Costello, among others. But his pop artistry has always been rooted in jazz, be it When Lights Are Low, a 1964 tribute to lifelong idol Nat King Cole, or the 1992 album nod to Sinatra, Perfectly Frank. The latter also presents Bennett in his most ideal performance setting: a lean, complementary jazz combo.
“Jazz has always been my musical passion,” Bennett said. “I always love working with jazz musicians because they keep things spontaneous. We never perform the same song the same way. It keeps things very live and in the moment.”
Still, if one album best personifies the Bennett renaissance of the '90s, it was MTV Unplugged. Admittedly, the commercial appeal of Bennett's career sagged greatly during much of the '70s and '80s despite several recorded triumphs, including a pair of album collaborations with jazz-piano giant Bill Evans. But the Unplugged success was especially sweet because it came without compromise.
Aside from a pair of duets with lang and Costello, Unplugged simply presented Bennett as he always was: an assured singer of traditional jazz and pop standards backed by a complementary, unfussy trio.
“It was a real vindication of the music that I have been performing all my life — the Great American Songbook,” Bennett said. “I have always been anti-demographics and have performed to the whole family.”
Perhaps the reason Bennett's family appeal is so pronounced is that he treats his audience, in essence, as family. That explains much of the intimacy surrounding his performances today. But it also details some of the ageless joy that Bennett finds onstage. After all, his first audience was literally his family. Shouldn't his 21st-century fan base be received just as cordially?
“When I was younger, my family would gather at our house on Sundays and everyone would make a circle,” Bennett said. “And my brother, sister and I would perform for them. I remember waiting all week until Sunday would come again so I could get a chance to entertain.
“I still feel that way every time I go onstage.”