Sunday, September 27, 1992

Tony Bennett Carries the Torch for Classic Pop

by James Gavin

Photo by David Corio

remembers a time in the summer of 1956 when NBC asked him to fill in for the vacationing Perry Como on his television show. Despite the fact that Mr. Bennett had already had three No. 1 hits -- "Because of You," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Rags to Riches" -- he was petrified. He decided to ask his idol, Frank Sinatra, whom he had never met, for advice. "Everybody had warned me, 'Look out, he's a tough guy,' but I had intuition," Mr. Bennett recalls. "I felt it was gonna be all right." Backstage at the Paramount Theater, where Mr. Sinatra was appearing, he gave the young singer a fatherly tip: "Don't worry about being nervous. People don't mind that. It's when you don't care that they walk away from you."

Mr. Bennett always recalls that encounter when he talks about the importance of holding onto one's standards. In the late 70's, he even stopped recording rather than sing what he considered inferior material. At the age of 66, he is still the kind of celebrity whom cabdrivers call by his first name and who answers gushy praise by clasping his forehead and murmuring, "Ahh, geez, thanks." But he isn't afraid to boast when it comes to his material, which he regards as a legacy of timeless songs. "What I try to do," he says, "is give a performance and have everybody say, 'God, I love that song.' That's my reward."

"Perfectly Frank," Mr. Bennett's newly released 52d album, is a salute to an artist who, probably more than any other, shaped Mr. Bennett's musical taste -- and who has called him "the best goddamn pop singer I ever heard." Backed by a trio led by Ralph Sharon, his musical director since the 1950's, Mr. Bennet performs 24 Sinatra standards. Some of the tempos are updated -- a pulsating "One for My Baby," a breezy, swinging version of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" -- but most of the album is simple, unembellished pop-jazz singing in a husky tenor that sounds richer and more flexible than it has since the late 70's.

Mr. Bennett is often compared with Mr. Sinatra, who is 10 years his senior, though their styles differ considerably. Where Mr. Sinatra brings an actor's sense of drama to a song, Mr. Bennett sings straight from the heart, with a warmth that rings true -- even when he delivers a torch song like "Here's That Rainy Day" through his perpetual goofy smile.

On stage at Radio City Music Hall, where he gave two recent concerts, Mr. Bennett exuded a boyish enthusiasm that belied his age. As ovations rose from the house, he held up his arms like a winning prizefighter, looking as if he wanted to embrace the whole audience. He is a lot happier creating than analyzing; when answering questions, he often grasps awkwardly for an adage given him by George Burns or Mr. Sinatra (" . . it's like Frank Sinatra always told me, 'Don't worry about money. Come up with quality, and money will follow.' "). Occasionally, to emphasize a point during a recent interview at his midtown Manhattan apartment, he punches his left hand, breaking through his raspy whisper with a bang.

Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Astoria, Queens, in 1926, Mr. Bennett got his first taste of performing after graduating from high school, when he landed a job as a singing waiter for $15 a week. In 1950, he submitted a demonstration record to Columbia and was signed immediately. That year, a modest hit, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," was followed by a string of hit singles, culminating in 1962 with his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

During the 50's, Mr. Bennett eagerly joined a community headed by Mr. Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and others, whose music, he says, "created dreams, created hope." At his peak, he recorded three albums a year for Columbia and worked a circuit of clubs and concert halls -- the Copacabana and Basin Street East in New York, the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco -- that seemed like fixtures on the musical landscape. "I didn't think it would ever change," he says. "I'm still in a state of shock as to where it went."

The rock invasion inevitably affected Mr. Bennett's record sales in the late 60's. Unlike Peggy Lee and Miss Horne, who welcomed the chance to dabble in rock, he clung stubbornly to classic pop. But Clive Davis, Columbia's new president, decided that Mr. Bennett needed to start recording the songs of the day. As Mr. Davis wrote in his 1975 book, "Clive: Inside the Record Business": "Musically, Tony was looking over his shoulder. His repertory was dated, and the public wasn't buying it." Mr. Bennett agreed to cut two pop-rock albums, "Something" and "The Great Hits of Today," even though he says he vomited before recording each one.

To this day, he still resents the businessmen who, in his view, have made pop music first and foremost a moneymaking venture. "Isn't it common sense that if you're making recordings, a musician should be in charge?" he asks. "Now you have the moneymen telling the artists what to do." When he received an ultimatum to keep recording current songs or leave the label, he left.

He calls the 70's "the worst period that every happened" in pop music, when record companies dropped nearly all traditional pop albums from their catalogues in favor of rock and disco. He moved to England for three years, where he produced three lavish orchestral albums that went nowhere. Returning to this country in the mid-70's, Mr. Bennett formed his own label, Improv, which quickly folded because he could not get a distributor. Although his concert audiences largely remained loyal, it came as a major blow when he eventually found himself shut out of Las Vegas -- reportedly because he could not compete with the glitzier stars and extravaganzas. That has not changed.

"Us solo performers made that town -- Louis Prima, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis," he says. "Then once it starts flying, instead of saying, 'Thank you,' they say, 'Who needs you? Get out of here.' "

But by the mid-80's Mr. Bennett began to emerge as more than a survivor of a bygone era. After Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson and Carly Simon recorded successful albums of standards, he rejoined Columbia in 1985. Says his son Danny, his manager since 1979: "People kept saying, 'Wait a minute. Those records seem like an alternative to the real thing.' " He negotiated a five-album deal, of which "Perfectly Frank" is the fourth.

Since then, singers like Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson have returned to major labels as well, but Mr. Bennett believes that the industry is still obsessed with pushing "disposable" pop on the youth market to make a quick buck. "The young people are absolutely programmed," he says. "They're still being told, 'This is your music, and that other stuff is for your parents.' "

Though he won a Grammy for "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" in 1962, Mr. Bennett and most of his contemporaries have not been treated kindly by the awards committee in recent years. "Today, the way the Grammys are run, the distributors should get the awards," he says. Nominated in 1990 for his album "Astoria," he found himself in competition with the 22-year-old Harry Connick Jr., whom he had met seven years earlier in New Orleans. "Harry's father brought him up to me after a concert and said, 'I have a young son here who's a singer. We really have faith in him,' " Mr. Bennett recalls. "I just told him to stick with it."

At the Grammy ceremony two years ago, Mr. Bennett received the only standing ovation of the evening when he sang Charles DeForest's "When Do the Bells Ring for Me?" Mr. Connick won the award.

The jazz singer Carmen McRae, who made a guest appearance on Mr. Connick's second album, "20," in 1988, later spoke out against the choice. "I like Harry," she told Downbeat magazine. "He's a nice kid and everything, but over Tony Bennett, no way."

Nonetheless, Mr. Bennett still maintains a schedule that any singer would envy, performing as many as 200 concerts a year. "I get nightly awards -- standing ovations," he says. "I don't feel frustrated." Being a troubadour, he admits, has made it tough to maintain a conventional family life. Twice divorced, he has three children in addition to Danny: Antonia, Joanna and Daegal, his record producer. Keeping his business in the family, Mr. Bennett says, is the only way to avoid having to compromise. Off stage, he occupies himself by painting, a lifelong passion. A recent afternoon found him in his apartment working on a painting of the Avenue of the Americas, which his living room overlooks.

In many ways, Frank Sinatra is still his hero. "I asked Sinatra last year, 'Why do you think we've stayed around so long?' He said, 'Because we stayed with good music,' " Mr. Bennett says. "That's what I tried to tell the young people with this album -- that if you're gonna write songs, aim for this kind of craftsmanship. And if you're gonna sing them, sing the ones that are gonna be around for a long time."