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 when audiences 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 to one 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&B-tinged 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.
a Grammy-nominated writer/producer and winner of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award.
Sing You Sinners (Sam Coslow–Frank Harling)
Columbia 38959, mx CO 44125, Recorded 20 July 1950, New York
Because Of You (Arthur Hammerstein–Dudley Wilkinson)
Columbia 39362, mx CO 45194-1, Recorded 4 Apil 1951, New York
Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (Al Dubin–Harry Warren)
Columbia 38825, mx CO 43129-1, Recorded 20 April 1950, New York
While We're Young (Alec Wilder–William Engvick–Morty Palitz)
Columbia 39449, mx CO 45832-1, Recorded 31 May 1951, New York
Please, My Love (Allie Wrubel)
Adapted from Massenet's ElegieColumbia 39764, mx CO 45835-1, Recorded 31 May 1951, New York
Since My Love Has Gone (Herbert Wasserman–Jack Aaron)
Adapted from Verdi's La Traviata: 'Addio del Passato'
Columbia 39635, mx CO 45834-1, Recorded 31 May 1951, New York
Cold, Cold Heart (Hank Williams)
Columbia 39449, mx CO 45833-1, Recorded 31 May 1951, New York
Blue Velvet (Bernie Wayne–Lee Morris)
Columbia 39555, mx CO 45853-1, Recorded 17 June 1951, New York
Have A Good Time (Boudleaux & Felice Bryant)
Columbia 39764, mx CO 47411-1, Recorded 24 April 1952, New York
Here In My Heart (Pat Genara–Lou Levinson–Bill Borrelli)
Columbia 39745, mx CO 47417-1, Recorded 30 April 1952, New York
I'm The King Of Broken Hearts (Frederick & Jerry Tobias)
Columbia 39964, mx CO 48160-1, Recorded 4 September 1952, New York
Rags To Riches (Richard Adler–Jerry Ross)
Columbia 40048, mx CO 48927-1, Recorded 17 March 1953, New York
Stranger In Paradise (Robert Wright–George Forrest)
Adapted from Borodin's Prince Igor: 'Polovtsian Dances'
Columbia 40121, mx CO 49845-1, Recorded 13 October 1953, New York
There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight (Hank Williams)
Columbia 40169, mx CO 50410-1, Recorded 4 December 1953, New York
Take Me Back Again (Redd Evans–Marvin Kahn–Art Berman)
Adapted from Gounod's Faust: 'Avant de Quitter Ces Lieux'
Columbia 40272, mx CO 50610-2, Recorded 27 December 1953, New York
Cinnamon Sinner (Lincoln Chase)
Columbia 40272, mx CO 51438-2, Recorded 13 May 1954, New York
Not As A Stranger (John Schroeder–Abner Silver)
Columbia 40311, mx CO 51431-1, Recorded 11 May 1954, New York
Please Driver (Once Around The Park Again) (Chilton Price)
Columbia 40213, mx CO 50409-1, Recorded 4 December 1953, New York
Funny Thing (Carl Sigman–Arthur Williams)
Columbia 40376, mx RHCO 33236-1, Recorded 24 September 1954, Los Angeles
Come Next Spring (Leonard Adelson–Max Steiner)
Columbia 40598, mx CO 53852, Recorded 11 October 1955, New York