Tuesday, February 12, 2013

You Can't Beat Bennett

If you could time travel, what time period would you choose? After enjoying Tony Bennett's new book, Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett, I can tell you without reservation that I'd have loved to have been shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony as he visited jazz clubs along 52nd Street in New York in the 1950s. Billie, Louie, Ella - you name the vocal great, and they were fully alive and practicing!

This book reminds me of two other recent memoirs I've enjoyed: Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace and Willie Nelson's The Facts of Life: and Other Dirty Jokes. The authorial voice is completely authentic. In Young's book, I was struck by how much he was in the present: at various turns he talked about trying to sell music executives on a new sound recording system. You can feel him jump off the page. Same thing with Nelson. For someone who has crafted such wonderful and wise lyrics, he's totally a "down home" person. He's got many groaners in his dirty joke bag, but his love for them gives you a true sense of his personality. 

Tony Bennett's written voice is the same way. You will not hear anything close to negative in his remarks. His relentless optimism might drive you batty until you realize that the fellow is just being himself: protecting the "brand" that he's worked so hard to establish. It's good business and in no small measure it's also what has kept him on this earth for 86 years. 

Here's what is clear from this memoir: Tony is a very proud man (there's not an album in his catalog that he's ashamed of, he says, on the occasion of the publication of all of them in a $400 boxed set). He's justifiably proud of how hard he's worked and persisted. He cares about quality - always has, from the start of his career when he had to wrestle with Mitch Miller (the deal: one jazz album for each gimmicky pop album suggested) to his refusal to kowtow to Clive Davis at Columbia in the late 1960s and record more contemporary material. 

There's a characteristic Tony Bennett mode of delivery that Alec Baldwin caught beautifully on a Saturday Night Live skit (with Tony in on the joke). But don't think his presentation is ever canned. He is a true jazz singer - always sensitive to the moment and deeply in touch with his audience. He varies his pitch and his tone. He is always true to the lyric. Like all great singers, he tells the story.

Working 3 shows a night at the Copacabana and 7 an evening at the Paramount when he was starting out, one truly appreciates how this singer gained his chops. He cranked out 2 to 3 albums a year into the late 1960s. He has rarely gotten off the performing wheel, save for a downturn in the late 1970s (one for which he'd be rescued by his son who became his business manager).

I love the man. I'll never forget him signing an album for me one morning when I attended a public signing at a local department store. I'll always cherish when my family took my father to see him at the Arie Crown Theater in northern Chicagoland. 

Give this book a chance. You'll embrace this great American and put his music on. What a relaxing and satisfying place to be!