During the 1950s,American popular music was
taking on a predominantly Italian flavour. The
charts were dominated by male singers of
Italian heritage including Frank Sinatra, Dean
Martin, Mario Lanza,Al Martino, Perry Como,
and Jerry Vale. A half century later, all of these
artists are gone; either dead or long out of
favour with the American record buying public.
The one survivor of this genre is Tony Bennett.
Bennett rose to fame in the early 1950s, the
calm before the rock’n’roll storm, when Tin Pan
Alley and Broadway show tunes still ruled the
air waves and jukeboxes of America. Yet, unlike
others of his ilk, Bennett had staying power.
And despite setbacks due to alcohol and the
constantly changing preferences of record
buyers and concert goers, Bennett remains
today at the top of his game, a venerable and
still vital force who will have turned 80 as this
CD is being released.
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born
3 August 1926 in Astoria, Queens, New York.
The son of a grocer, Bennett grew up listening
to the top popular singers and entertainers of
the day, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and
Bing Crosby. As a self-styled ‘Crosby singer’,
Bennett was attracted to songs that told a story.
But he was also a fan of jazz, Broadway and
classical music, developing a versatility that
would carry him through the hard times whenaudiences were changing allegiances as quickly
as new songs were hitting the charts.
While a teenager, Bennett began his career
as a singing waiter,much like one of his idols,
Irving Berlin. Serving in World War II, Bennett
performed as ‘Joe Bari’, entertaining the
occupying forces in Germany as part of a
Special Services band. Upon returning to the
States, he took singing lessons through the
American Theatre Wing, learning the bel canto
singing discipline, one that emphasized fluidity
and sweetness of tone. His phrasing was
inspired by jazz musicians, and Bennett would
develop not only a love for jazz, but the ability
to play with jazz orchestras, an ability that
would come in handy during his later career.
Bennett’s recording career began in 1947,
with a record made under the name Joe Bari for
the tiny Leslie label. No copies of this record
are known to exist. Discovered by Pearl Bailey
in 1949, Bennett was given his stage name by
Bob Hope, who took him on the road the next
year. A demo record for Mitch Miller, consisting
of Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Boulevard of
Broken Dreams” backed with the jazz standard “Crazy Rhythm”, resulted in a contract with
Columbia Records, for whom he made his first
recordings in April 1950.
Bennett’s initial recordings from 1950,
featuring the orchestra of Marty Manning,exhibited a singer with youthful power and
conviction. To a tango beat, Bennett reprised
Boulevard Of Broken Dreams as one of his
first recordings. On Sing You Sinners, from
the 1938 film of the same name, Bennett
exhibited a style far from that of the crooners
of the day, including Crosby, Como, and Sinatra,
a style that wasted no time on romantic
intimacy, instead presenting a strong, forceful
tenor, yet emphasizing his training in the bel
canto style. The result was intimate, yet
intense, and thoroughly believable. Bennett’s
passion for the meaning of the songs he sang
came through on his recordings at a time when
popular song needed this the most.
Beginning in 1951, Bennett was teamed
with orchestra leader Percy Faith, whose lush
but non-overbearing orchestrations provided
him with all of his early chart successes. One
of his first singles, Because Of You, featured in
the film I Was an American Spy,was an instant
hit, topping the Billboard pop charts for ten
weeks in 1951. He quickly supplanted Sinatra
as Columbia’s top vocal star; the next year,
Sinatra would leave Columbia to start a new
career with Capitol.
Although many pop singers of the early ’50s
were saddled with dispensable pop novelties
(“Come on-a My House”,“Hoop-Dee-Doo”),
Bennett was spared this indignity, focusing on
tried-and-true standards by Tin Pan Alley’s finest
writers, balanced with current motion picture
and stage hits. But Bennett was looking
elsewhere for material to record, and turned toone field that other pop singers had ignored up
to this time: country and western music.
Bennett was able to look beyond the fiddles
and steel guitars that typified the music
developing in Nashville to discover songs with
heart and emotion that perfectly fit his style
and which he could effectively convey to his
audience. In 1951, Bennett’s recording of Hank
Williams’ Cold, Cold Heart broke the barrier
between pop and country, and became his
second No. 1 hit. In short order, other pop
singers, including Jo Stafford, Patti Page and
Rosemary Clooney, also tapped the mines of
country music for hits. Bennett would record
other country songs during this period,
including Williams’ There’ll Be No Teardrops
Tonight and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s
Have A Good Time.
Reducing the octane in his voice, Bennett
also had a hit with Blue Velvet, a song of
longing that would become a hit for Bobby
Vinton a decade later. On this record, Bennett
showed his ability to exhibit tenderness while
sacrificing none of the forcefulness of his vocal
powers. The record resulted in Bennett
receiving the accolades of screaming teenagers
at New York’s Paramount Theatre (where he
performed seven shows a day) that had been
previously reserved only for Sinatra.
Bennett’s biggest hit of 1953, and one of the
most successful singles of the year,was his
recording of Rags To Riches,written by a new
songwriting team, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
Bennett’s record sold over two millions copies,propelling Adler and Ross to instant fame.
Before Ross’ premature death in 1955, the pair
would achieve world-renown for shows such
as The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.
Another 1953 hit came from the Broadway
show Kismet, an adaptation of a theme from
Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances (Prince Igor) that
was renamed Stranger In Paradise.
With rock’n’roll beginning to rear its
formidable head,Tony Bennett saw much of his
young audience beginning to evaporate. One
of his last top ten hits of the decade was
Cinnamon Sinner, a novelty written by
Lincoln Chase, who wrote “Jim Dandy” for
LaVern Baker and a succession of songs in the
early ’60s for his wife Shirley Ellis. The R&Btinged
record was noticeably out of his element,
but Bennett refused to submit to the pressures
of the trend towards teenyboppers and instead,
issued his first 10” LP, Alone at Last, in 1954.
The next year, Bennett switched to the 12”format, releasing Cloud 7, which signalled his
predilection to appeal to older audiences, who
were better heeled to purchase long playing
albums than the singles-oriented younger set.
After 1957’s “In the Middle of an Island”,
Bennett never again had a top ten hit on the
singles charts. Even his signature song,“I Left
My Heart in San Francisco”, barely cracked the
top twenty. But in becoming a nightclub star
in the mid 1950s, Bennett found an audience
for life. Three decades later, another generation
of young audiences found Bennett, not on their
terms, but on his. His passion for meaningful
songs from stage, screen, and the jazz world,
had become hip again. For Tony Bennett, a
former waiter from Queens, New York,The Best
Was Yet to Come.
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