A supreme talent’s curtain call
MUSIC | But Tony Bennett’s robust voice will live on
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The recent death of Tony Bennett did not exactly come as a surprise. He was just 13 days shy of his 97th birthday, and he’d been known for several years to be suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Still, as someone who scored his first No. 1 hit in 1951 and gave his final public performances 70 years later—racking up numerous accolades and scoring one unlikely comeback after another along the way—he was the kind of perennial presence it was possible to imagine might defy the ultimate odds and be around forever.
In some ways, he will be, or at least (to paraphrase Shakespeare) as long as men can breathe or ears can hear. Bennett’s Wikipedia discography lists 34 compilations, four of which went gold, the best of which is called Jazz, and none of which is the 76-disc The Complete Collection that Columbia/Sony released in 2011. No singer who inspires that kind of marketing is in danger of disappearing anytime soon.
And he wasn’t just a singer. He could draw and paint at a museum-worthy level too. Most people would be happy to possess one talent by which they can make a living. Bennett possessed two—and those in abundance.
But, if only because there’s no visual-arts equivalent of Spotify, it’s as a singer that Bennett will live on. For much of his career, he found himself overshadowed by Frank Sinatra. But, other than sharing similar (and at times overlapping) tastes in the material that they recorded, the two had little in common vocally.
Sinatra’s voice had an edge, derived in part from his fondness for cigarettes and booze. Bennett quit smoking after the death of Nat King Cole in 1965, and drugs (specifically, marijuana and cocaine) only became a problem for him in the mid-to-late 1970s. So his voice never lost its luxuriant splendor. It did develop though. Listen to his early Columbia singles, and you’ll hear a voice that, before it settled into an ebullient croon, was so robust that it sometimes verged on the operatic.
Bennett produced two memoirs, The Good Life and Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Tony Bennett. Stick with the first. Published in 1998, four years after his Grammy Award–winning MTV Unplugged album made him cool with the young, it’s a typical as-told-to autobiography, the most interesting parts of which explain the way that, beginning in 1979, his then-tanking career was saved by his businessman son Danny. The second, published in 2012, reads more like a name-dropping victory lap, the almost comically unintentional message of which is “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.”
If by “great,” however, one simply means “supremely talented,” great Bennett was. And, no, we’ll not see his like again.
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