Tony Bennett’s 10 Essential Songs

Bennett considers Count Basie and Duke Ellington to be two of the greatest bandleaders he’s ever heard, swinging this Ellington jazz standard effortlessly and happily with the great Milt Hinton on bass and Basie regular Joe Newman on trumpet. Bennett has a near reverence for great jazz musicians, which may be why he never claimed to be part of that tradition. “I’m not a jazz singer,” he used to say. “I’m a singer who likes jazz.”

Between 1951 and 1963, Bennett released 19 Top 20 songs on the Billboard Singles Chart. Then the Beatles came along and the hits stopped. Columbia Records president Clive Davis encouraged Bennett to cover modern pop hits, but Davis recalled that Bennett vomited the day he started working on the new record, which included songs by The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. However, the singer was a member of the theater company. “Wow!” he interrupts in the middle of George Harrison’s “Something,” almost convincingly.

Bennett had an affinity for the pianist. She had a lasting influence from Art Tatum, a long partnership with Ralph Sharon, and one of her finest albums with Bill Evans. Bennett wasn’t quite as master of urban ennui as Sinatra, but he wrings out all the bittersweet grief from this song, written by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green for the musical On the Town, sung alongside Evans’ lyrical and thoughtful piano.

For most of the 70s, drug addiction, divorce, tax problems and depression plagued Bennett. Her son Danny then took over as manager and planned a return to Columbia Records. Perhaps more importantly, Bennett reunited with Sharon to record his acclaimed comeback with just piano, bass, drums and orchestra. His voice was rougher than before, but he adjusted it by imbuing the lower register with a deft understatement, especially on the version of Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in Her Arms.”

Bennett loved The Great American Songbook, but the prolific singer eventually ran out of pre-rock standards and had to look for something a little younger. So when he heard piano bar stalwart Charles DeForest perform his song “When Do the Bells Ring for Me” in a restaurant one night, Bennett was overjoyed. The song became a concert showcase for Bennett thanks to its climactic high notes, and he received a standing ovation when Bennett performed the song at the 1991 Grammy Awards.

Biographically, Bennett and Cole Porter were Midwesterners of considerable privilege who had more in common. But Porter’s whimsical use of double and triple rhymes suited Bennett’s rubert tricks so well that his second album with Lady Gaga was Porter’s own, released five years after Bennett’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. To be honest, it’s shocking to hear the 95-year-old Master sing “I might go for cocaine.”

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