A thought or two about Tony Bennett

July 25th, 2023

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Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tony Bennett, 1966

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…..We’ve lost a ton of iconic celebrities lately – stars of all ages and from many creative worlds.  Among them: Tina Turner, David Crosby, Cormac McCarthy, Alan Arkin, David Bowie, Ahmad Jamal, Wayne Shorter, Sidney Poitier, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Belafonte, Jeff Beck, Astrud Gilberto and Joey DeFrancesco.

…..For those of us who are part of the Baby Boomer generation, losing the likes of Bowie, Crosby, Turner, and Beck still comes as a shock.  Wasn’t it just yesterday that Crosby sang with the Byrds, Bowie wowed us as “Ziggy Stardust,” Tina and husband Ike rolled us “on the river,” and Beck’s Blow by Blow ingeniously merged rock and jazz?  Their deaths came too soon (they always do) and they now serve as reminders of Boomers’ own mortality, and for the importance of living out our lives to the fullest.

…..Friday’s death of Tony Bennett felt different.  Others who have recently died also led vibrant lives to their final days, but Bennett successfully marketed himself, and his age, as inspirational and aspirational in a way few performers ever have.  While he had late-in-life challenges with Alzheimers, his musical contributions were always seen as relevant, abundant and essential to the overall artistic community and its audiences – even into his 90’s – to the point noteworthy contemporary creatives (i.e. Lady Gaga) collaborated with him on what are now considered career tentpole recordings.

…..What can’t be lost in Bennett’s recent success is what he meant to the audience of his own generation – “The Greatest” – who are now, of course, mostly gone.  He emerged in that era dominated by the vocalist – a time when giants like Armstrong, Sinatra, Ella, and Nat walked the earth, recording romantic standards and upbeat tunes our parents danced to in the kitchen and at neighborhood cocktail parties, and in the glow of post-war America.

…..I can’t help but think of my own parents during this time, and their love of Bennett’s music.  The Hoffman console stereo that sat in the corner of our living room played no more than a dozen or so 45’s over the years, mostly mine or my siblings’ by the Beatles, Creedence, the Doors, and those bad boy Stones.  But the one I recall today was the only 45 my mother may have ever owned  – Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”  Living in the San Francisco Bay area, the song’s popularity with our family may be because we considered it a home town hit, but she played it a lot.  I can hear it now, high on the hill of adolescent memories.

…..Great music does that, and great artists like Bennett become a symbol of their era.  And part of his brilliance was that for the fifty years after my mother’s generation first set their needles on to that 45, he remained relevant, even in the face of the seismic shift from the time of the Rat Pack to that of John, Paul, George and Ringo – a transition that eventually resulted in the parents of us Boomers losing their grip on the culture, and raised questions about their own generation’s creative purpose and mortality.

…..Few artists survived that shift, and even fewer thrived.  But Tony Bennett did, for an awfully long time.  And there is an undeniable joy in that.

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Joe Maita

Editor/Publisher

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Listen to the 1962 recording of Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” [Columbia/Legacy]

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Watch the 2011 video of Bennett and Lady Gaga performing “The Lady is a Tramp” (he was 84 years old at the time) [from the official Tony Bennett YouTube channel]

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