I recently enjoyed an American Masters program on Tony Bennett. What I especially liked about it was that Bennett discussed how he came across some of the musical numbers associated with him.
Singers from Bennett’s generation all dipped into the Great American Songbook—these songs filled out the brunt of the musical program on their albums and gave them a canvas upon which to stamp their particular style. But inevitably a singer was forced to search for original material.
Frank Sinatra was famous enough not to have to search long. But even he had to place his faith in a couple of songwriters—namely Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen—who’d consistently give him fresh material with hit potential. Think of “All the Way,” “High Hopes,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” and “Love and Marriage.”
Sinatra latched onto Nelson Riddle, and their association propelled his career into its Golden Age. Earlier in the ’50s, Sinatra and his label (Columbia Records) had parted ways and one reason—aside from his poor record sales—was that Sinatra deplored working with Mitch Miller. He felt that Miller and the label were offering him only novelty songs (like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” or “Come on-a My House,” hits for Rosemary Clooney at the time).
A young Tony Bennett was at Columbia at the time, and his association with Miller is warmly recounted in the American Masters special. Turns out that Tony had a burning passion to sing, and since he was younger than Sinatra and unknown, he carried no baggage into his relationship with Miller.
Miller hit upon a salient characteristic of Bennett’s singing at the time—Tony had a lovely warm voice that carried a lyrical line seamlessly from start to finish. He clearly enunciated each vowel and consonant, so the story in the song was well understood upon one listening. Bennett recalled a classical musical singing style called bel canto. Wikipedia tell us that—
Bel canto singing characteristically focuses on perfect evenness throughout the voice, skillful legato, a light upper register, tremendous agility and flexibility, and a certain lyric, "sweet" timbre.
Miller steered Bennett toward material that suited this style, and Tony scored big with songs like “Because of You” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
It was Miller who suggested Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart.” The song is a charming anachronism, and it illustrated Bennett’s greatest talent—his passionate respect for a lyric, wherever it may originate from. This man always had a strong sense of what he wanted to accomplish as a singer.
Bennett soared again in the early ’60s with a little ditty about San Francisco, but his hit-making days for him and his compatriots came to a resounding end soon after John, Paul, George, and Ringo hit the tarmac at JFK.
But that strong knowledge of his own skill would sustain him through the 1960s, and, in the early 1970s when Columbia dropped him from the label, it would lead him to the confirmation that jazz and a simple, direct accompaniment was the next step.
I’ll be writing more about Tony Bennett because his singing is such an inspiration to me. In the meantime, though, may I suggest an album from his oeuvre that has seized my attention recently? It features just Tony and a piano, and I suggest you settle back and listen to those long, lovely, lyrical lines from Perfectly Frank.
It’s a tribute to Sinatra, the other unforgettable pop male vocalist of his generation. Arrivederci!