Tony Bennett proves the art of excellence is a worthwhile lifelong pursuit
By Matt Kelemen
Tony Bennett was brought up in an era when quality was appreciated. People in his Astoria, Queens, neighborhood would rather save for a well-made dress or suit than buy something flashy that didn’t last. “I was taught never to compromise, never to sing a cheap song, never look down at the audience,” he says in the 2012 documentary The Zen of Bennett. “You should do every move you make with quality. And the public rewards you for that. They love it. I love entertaining people. I make them feel good and they make me feel wonderful.”
There couldn’t be a more appropriate title for the film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Bennett’s career has followed a Zen-like path, rising and falling several times in his 86 years. The latest arc began in 1986 with his return to Columbia Records, several years after his son Danny took the management reins and positioned his father as a musical elder statesman
and keeper of the American Songbook flame. His album The Art of Excellence charted on the
Billboard 200 that year, a major triumph after Bennett’s ’70s decline but merely an opening salvo in the conquest that was to come.
By then, Bennett was mainly remembered as the voice of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which garnered him a Grammy in 1962 and is an accomplishment many of Bennett’s contemporaries would have sold their souls for without a late-career comeback. Young Anthony Benedetto was a natural, though, compensating for the death of his father by increasingly committing to music. He credits his study of bel canto singing after World War II as the key behind his longevity as a vocalist, and credits Bob Hope for discovering him and giving him the name with which he would launch his recording career in the early ’50s.
When Frank Sinatra began making movies, Bennett filled the gap with hits such as “Rags to Riches.” His cover of “Cold, Cold Heart” introduced Hank Williams to many mainstream listeners for the first time, while his own exposure to the master musicians of jazz influenced his singing and cemented his commitment to a musical purism. “San Francisco” was the swan song for a pop music era that was about to give way to Beatlemania. Bennett would stumble commercially as music changed, but he never faltered musically.
The watershed year was 1992, when Bennett paid tribute to Sinatra with the Perfectly Frank album. Appearances on the MTV Video Music Awards with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and on the network’s Unplugged series positioned Bennett as a cultural icon for a new generation, a symbol of authenticity in an increasingly unreal music industry. The upward trajectory has continued to this day. His two Duets recordings with contemporary singers became huge hits, he added his latest Grammy to his collection last year and, most rewardingly, he has become acclaimed for the painting skills he developed alongside his vocal talent.
“To explain it simply, I like what I do, and my ambition is to get better as I get older,” says Bennett in the documentary. “That’s what I’m about, really.”