PASO ROBLES – I’m not worthy of writing about this great man, but I’m sticking with the assignment! Everyone knows of Tony Bennett at this point — just as we know of Elvis and Sinatra.
He’s the boy from Queens, New York, one of three kids, born Anthony Dominick Benedetto and raised by his mom after his dad died when he was only 10. He went to an arts high school where he bloomed his two passions of singing and painting, sang while waiting tables, enlisted in the Army during WWII, singing in military bands. Started singing nightclubs in Astoria in 1946… until he was discovered by Bob Hope.
Apparently, Bob Hope had him change his stage name from Joe Bari to Tony Bennett and his career went on to be one of the most successful of all time: He is a major player in the Great American Songbook, with enough Grammys to be centerpieces at each table at Michael Buble’s wedding, enough chart-toppers to fill to the rims of every martini glass in Manhattan, and performing duets with more stars than the Milky Way.
And he’s one of only a handful of artists who have new albums charting in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and still today. Everyone was talking about how Tony Bennett was still singing with near-perfect pitch. 91-years-old and still holding on to the side of the grand piano in his white jacket. Doing the shimmy. Singing those lyrics that remind us that love is all there is. To make it count. One thing Tony Bennett does when the audience roars and claps after his songs
Which brings us to the Vina Robles Amphitheater last Saturday evening, when the summer began with warm weather, a light breeze that cooled and fanned generously when the sun came down, and a legend that young and old all came to see.
Vina Robles is a treat in itself, a venue likened to my childhood memories of outdoor classical concerts on a picnic blanket set on a green grassy hillside. There’s comfort in all the amenities: amazing wine kiosks, delicious summer food
“Can you believe he can still sing like that?” everyone was saying. He put on an energetic show, standing in front of every musician in “The Quartet” during their instrumentals: the shockingly talented and famous jazz and swing guitar player Gray Sargent, Count Basie’s favorite drummer Harold Jones, highly-respected stand-up bass player Marshall Wood, and pianist Tom Adair. Bennett would hold out his stretched hand to pass the baton to each player saying, “Take it!” which now (thanks to Alec Baldwin on SNL) reminds some people of the enthusiastic impression of Tony Bennett instead of the real human person actually standing there singing. But Bennett is all about teamwork. At the end of the show, I wished I had filmed the part when he walked off during a standing ovation, sending us an over-the-back thumb point to his band as if to say, “Give them some of the love — they’re the ones who deserve it!”
A true gentleman.
The show opened with jazz singer Donna Byrne. She’s a quick-witted, sassy entertainer. Wearing a smart black suit with black high heels, Byrne dedicated a Cole Porter song, “Dream Dancing” to Tony Bennett.
A recording of Frank Sinatra introduced Bennett, who came out to applause that would have rivaled anything the Vegas Strip has ever seen — making me realize why Bennett’s people chose Paso Robles for his nationwide summer tour — beginning the show with a little mix of his song lyrics, including “Watch What Happens” from the 1965 album “If I Ruled The World — Songs For The Jet Set.”
“On an evening such as this...yes… let someone with a deep love to give… give his deep love to you… what magic you’ll see… let someone give his heart… someone who cares like me... Someone who cares like me!”
Before his next song, as the piano led him along to “This is all I ask,” he began singing, “As I approach the prime of my life...” and the whole audience began chuckling. Bennett is clearly young at heart and his passion for entertaining has kept his voice clean and body fit for the task of an almost two-hour concert. Unreal when you think about it. There were times in the show Bennett reminded us of his humanness. Taking out a handkerchief to wipe his nose, for instance. But I equally enjoyed the times he reminded us that he’s a big star, like when he ended the show with the Gershwin song we all know: “I Got Rhythm” from that 1995 album “Here’s to the Ladies.”
Such a ladies’ man. The good kind.
“Oh, I've got rhythm/ I've got music/I've got daisies in green pastures/I've got starlight/I've got sweet dreams/I've got my gal/Who could ask for anything more?”
And if Bennett were to ask any of us in the audience what makes us happy, believe me, it was that person holding our arm as we sat under the stars. And if not — their longing, as his songs always center on romance.
He played a long concert with many of the favorites: love songs like “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and sad songs coming from the pit of his stomach as he gripped onto the microphone with both hands like: “In My Solitude.” And all the while, Bennett gave it his all. “Play it Tom!” he would say in his raspy voice as the pianist broke into solos. “Take it!” he would say as he held the mic to the stand-up bass strings as the bassist went off on some jazzy licks. He mixed it up with “I’m Old Fashioned” by Ella Fitzgerald and a whole string of stanzas from many of his albums.
Bennett began loving music from the radio, listening to Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. He was compelled by the stories set to sound. But for me, listening to Bennett’s lyrics are the most inspiring thing about his concerts. He has lived through decades of war and peace. He once marched side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma to support civil rights. He’s raised millions for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and he still paints (well), earning proceeds for cancer research. He founded the Exploring the Arts (ETA) to strengthen the role of the arts in public high school education. So I like to listen to what he’s chosen to say and sing, especially when it comes to love.
“As I approach the prime of my life/I find I have the time of my life/Learning to enjoy at my leisure/All the simple pleasures/And so I happily concede/That this is all I ask/This is all I need... Wandering rainbows, leave a bit of color for my heart to own/Stars in the sky, make my wish come true before the night has flown/And let the music play as long as there's a song to sing/And I will stay younger than Spring.”
Indeed, he will stay young, like the song lyrics of the crowd-pleaser, “Love Is Here to Stay.”
In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble/They’re only made of clay/But our love (and Tony Bennett) is here to stay.”