Tony Bennett and the songs he didn’t want to sing – Daniele Cassandro

American jazz and pop singer Tony Bennett is 96 years old and retired a few years ago. His career as a crooner began in the late 1940s after he had fought in World War II in France and Germany. Of Italian origin, from Calabria to be exact, before launching into the world of song Bennett had studied operatic singing, a study that proved to be fundamental for maintaining his voice. Try listening to the duet albums he recorded, over ninety, with Lady Gaga, Cheek-to-cheek (2014) e Love for sale (2021); his voice and style are still pristine. Especially the style that allows him to face the classics of the songbook American adapting them to his voice which is certainly no longer that of the fifties.

Of all the greats entertainer post-war American Tony Bennett is the one with the best technique: as a young man he understands that he must do with the voice what the great jazz soloists do with their instruments. And it was his technical ability, as well as his sensitivity as an interpreter, that allowed him to continue to have enormous success in the fifties and sixties, the period in which the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll had changed the rules of the US music industry. In 1965 Frank Sinatra, the artist to whom he was often compared and whom he did everything not to resemble, said: “If I had to bet money, I’d say that Tony Bennett is the best singer today. He electrifies me when I watch him. He moves me. It is the singer who manages to deliver what the composer had in mind. And maybe even more.”

Sinatra touches on a fundamental point of Tony Bennett’s art: to say what the composer of the piece had in mind. Digging into a song to make something unique and of his own, forging a classic known to all until it becomes a new work of art, both familiar and innovative. The classic songbook American was his life and his element, it was his alphabet, the only language he knew.

When, at the end of the sixties, the sales of his records drop and Clive Davis, the manager of Columbia, his record company, tells him that he must abandon the great songbook to sing the pop hits of the moment, Bennett lacks the ground under his feet.

These are the years of the British invasion, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, psychedelic rock and the big festivals: Tony Bennett is an old scrap, a melancholy crooner good for the big-boobed ladies who go to spend their retirement in Reno or Las Vegas. Clive Davis asks him what other artists of his generation have already done: use their technique and their popularity to make the crossover with chart pop. After all, if you sing Cole Porter or George and Ira Gershwin you can also sing Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles or Stevie Wonder.

In some respects Tony Bennett is very much in tune with his times: he is a staunch pacifist and is close to the cause of civil rights for African Americans. But as far as music is concerned, his roots are firmly in the pre-war song tradition. In 1969 Clive Davis cornered him and forced him into the studio with producer Wally Gold, who had revived and revitalized Barbra Streisand’s career by having her perform pieces by Paul Simon, Paul McCartney and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Clive Davis’ reasoning is simple: if Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Barbra Streisand and Lena Horne did it, why can’t Tony Bennett do it too?

The result is that he physically feels nauseous every time he enters the studio: for him, the radio hits of the moment are a constraint, a humiliation, a defeat. Yet he lowers his head and engraves Tony sings the great hits of today! (complete with an exclamation point), which comes out in January 1970 leaving behind a trail of failure and bitterness. It is an album that no one likes and that Bennett himself repudiates: “For me singing that stuff was as if my mother who was a seamstress had been asked to sew any rag”, he said a few years later.

A caricature
Even the album cover looks like a caricature: the style is psychedelic and vaguely Yellow submarine of the illustration transforms the charming Italian-American crooner into a sort of Austin Powers, with a cashmere-patterned tie-foulard, flared trousers and shoes that an elegant man like him would rather die than wear. Even his face is unrecognizable and so a stamp is added with a portrait of him, but with two Tom Jones sideburns. Tony Bennett can’t help but consider the whole operation a farce, but he keeps everything inside and undergoes both the recording sessions and the promotion in silence. He is like a boxer who enters the ring knowing that he will only take punches and that he should only try to stay on his feet as long as possible.

Tony sings the great hits of today! is universally considered one of the least successful albums in the history of pop music, hated by the public and by the artist. It has never even been properly reissued: it was sneakily slipped into a celebratory box set (73 CDs!) released in 2001. On streaming platforms, however, it appears in all its glory and with its beautiful psychedelic cover.

Yet for anyone who loves voices Tony sings the great hits of today! is today a great forgotten record. The fact that Bennett hates that repertoire makes his interpretations painful and crepuscular but never sloppy: a great singer remains a great singer even when sleepwalking. Bennett can’t do without his sense of rhythm, his interpretative refinement and uses his superfine technique almost to distract himself, to get out of himself and transform what he considered bad songs into pure abstractions of thought. Bennett singing the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach is a fakir dancing on hot coals with his mind projected into a sublime abstraction that none of us ordinary listeners can see.

What is considered to be one of the most ridiculous and least successful tracks on the album, Little green apples, a 1968 rnb hit written by Bobby Russell and brought to success by several artists, is transformed by Bennett into a pure glitch, a transcendental meditation on swing. If we are not distracted by the démodé and vaguely kitsch arrangement, we hear an artist modeling words like clay that make little sense to him. Bennett’s head is really elsewhere when he sings a line like “There’s no such thing as Dr. Seuss. Not Disneyland.”

Critics of the time saw in his stentorian version of Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles one of the album’s low points. In fact it is difficult to understand today what they had in mind in that study. After a melismatic opening on the line “Ah, look at all the lonely people”, Bennett stops singing and recites the lines as if they were a Shakespearean monologue. All on a noisy and bulky arrangement. It’s definitely a reinvention, but not the happiest. But once again when Tony sings, he really sings. And with that single “Ah, look at all the lonely people”, set in such a disastrous context, he manages to get close to the heart of the Lennon and McCartney song.

My cherie amour by Stevie Wonder is treated with respect and if not with love, at least with delicacy. But in general the pieces that Bennett seems to hate the least are those by Bacharach and by Leiber and Stoller: that is The look of love And Is that all there is? The first is approached in order to enhance a sexy aspect that perhaps its original interpreter, Dionne Warwick, had missed a bit. Bennett sings it in a lively and easy way but with the voice of a man who has just woken up next to the girl of her dreams who looks at him precisely “with the gaze of love”. Is that all there is? he had been a pop staple of his peer Peggy Lee, also part of a generation of great entertainers threatened by the popularity of rock n roll. The bruised and disappointed Tony Bennett of 1969 can only make her a text that speaks of life’s disappointments with bitterness and irony. His version is almost a male contorcano to Peggy Lee’s, so faithful is it to the phrasing and rhythm of the original.

The shortened version of the sophisticated song-suite McArthur Park which opens the album is a bit of a missed opportunity, compared to the splendid work that Carmen McRae had done on it at about the same time. Even McRae, a refined jazz interpreter, had been convinced by her record labels to sing the hits of the moment, but rather than suffer the choices of others she had imposed her own. We had already talked about one of her most successful pop albums here.

Tony sings the great hits of today! it’s an exercise in endurance and Tony Bennett looks like a tortured hero who won’t give in to his tormentors. In the best moments of this ill-fated album Bennett, even tied up by his captors, manages to kick him in the balls. I love this record because it is a distillation of the style and taste of a man who didn’t feel part of his time, but didn’t accept being surpassed by it. Listen again Tony sings the great hits of today! today, after decades of truly horrible crossovers (from various Pavarotti and friends to lounge versions of Clash and Sex Pistols songs), it shows how great artists can do it all in the end.

The resounding failure of Tony sings the great hits of today! it allowed Bennett to break away from Columbia and return with renewed freshness to his music. Tony still had inside him his two best albums ever in collaboration with the great jazz pianist Bill Evans: The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans album (1975) and Together again (1976).

And then one last satisfaction: contemporary pop, which he had tried to pursue without success, came back knocking on his door decades later because he needed him. Lady Gaga to become a credible jazz performer in a difficult moment of her career could only call Tony.

Tony Bennett
Tony sings the great hits of today!
Columbia, 1970

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