Tony Bennett turns 90 years young today. You know, he defies age and just about everything else. Frank Sinatra’s favorite singer, and now the most famous crooner of our lifetime, Tony is not only our finest singer but also a man of conscience and civility. An early supporter of Martin Luther King, Tony stood up during the Civil Rights movement and never stopped fighting for the underdog. His ear is tuned to great music and to helping people. He’s devoted to his charity Exploring the Arts. And the public school he created in Queens– the Frank Sinatra School– is a beacon of hope.
Musically, you know Tony is as contemporary as the latest pop star. His album with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek, is an enormous success. The pair has toured all over the world. Tony heard what Gaga could be, just as he heard the great gift of Amy Winehouse before her tragic death. And he remains true to real jazz. His latest album, with Bill Charlap on piano, is a masterwork.
There are lots of Tony anecdotes, everybody who knows him has one. He is the most self-effacing person in the world. A few years ago he won a bunch of Emmy Awards for a TV special. I was looking for him at the after party at Disney Hall, thinking he must be in the VIP section or at some special table for winners. No, there he was, sitting with wife Susan, balancing a paper plate on his knee, sitting not in a chair but on a ledge while all kinds of people walked back and forth not even noticing him.
“Tony!” I said. “You know you just won Emmy Awards. You can sit in the VIP section.” He looked bemused. “Thanks, my friend, but I’m fine right here.”
Three summers ago I was at the recording session for his Duets album with Aretha Franklin at a studio on the West Side. It was about 100 degrees outside. Inside, Aretha had producer Phil Ramone turn off the air conditioning. It was so steamy in the studio that poor Phil was drenched in sweat. Aretha wore a sleeveless top and was cool as a cucumber. Tony, on the other hand, was sporting a full suit and tie– dark blue suit, monochromatic light blue shirt and tie. His face was redder than a stop sign.
“Tony, you can take all that off, you know. Aretha won’t mind.” She had said as much.
Tony shook his head. “No sir. I am dressed for Aretha Franklin.”
They went on and recorded “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” It was a great success, although I don’t know how Tony didn’t pass out during the session.
Afterward, Aretha said, “We took Tony Bennett into the studio and he burst into flames!”
Here’s the video, shot on that day:
Happy Birthday, Tony! And here’s to the beginning of many celebrations!