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Cal Thomas: More than just a crooner


WORLD Radio - Cal Thomas: More than just a crooner

Tony Bennett’s legacy includes songs that can touch a listener’s heart and soul

Tony Bennett performs at the 9th Annual Exploring The Arts Gala on September 28, 2015 in New York City. Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Exploring The Arts

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 27th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler. What makes a singer truly great? Commentator Cal Thomas weighs in with his reflection on Tony Bennett, who was much more than just a “crooner.”

SONG: I left my heart in San Francisco. High on a hill it calls to me…

CAL THOMAS, COMMENTATOR: It was in the early ’60s. I was a copyboy at NBC News and the overnight disc jockey for the local radio station called and asked if I’d like to go on a boat ride down the Potomac River with his guest, Tony Bennett.

For several hours we cruised past some of Washington’s most famous landmarks. Tony let me take a picture of him with a big smile on his face. He later signed it, and I have kept it framed in my office ever since.

Bennett, who died last week at 96, was labeled in various obituaries as the “last of the crooners.” He was more than a crooner. While many singers have nice voices, not all can interpret songs the way Tony did. His talent and material spanned several generations. In later years he teamed up with contemporary singers like Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Michael Bublé and even Willie Nelson, but he never compromised on the quality of his work, or tried to become something he was not.

Consider just one of his many songs. “Fly me to the Moon” was sung by Frank Sinatra in an upbeat and swinging style. Bennett did it as a ballad and while each version has its own appeal, Bennett’s version is contemplative and, yes, more romantic.

SONG: Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars.

In a 1965 interview for Life magazine, Sinatra paid Bennett the ultimate compliment: “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me.”

Me, too. Shortly after that boat ride, I took a date to see him perform at the Shoreham Hotel’s iconic Terrace, an outdoor venue that during the summer featured the best singers of the day. It was where I began to understand what real love and romance felt like.

At one time I owned most of his albums. We can now call up his songs on Alexa and similar devices. Among my favorites was “The Many Moods of Tony,” which features a poignant song called “When Joanna Loved Me.

SONG: When Joanna loved me, every town was Paris, every day was Sunday, every month was May.

One gets the feeling he is identifying with listeners who have suffered a lost love, but who are comforted by the memory of what that love once felt like.

Bennett had a vocal range that never reached falsetto. He never shouted. He didn’t have to in order to command attention.

Most people will likely remember him for what became his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Younger people would do well to consider this great preserver of the American Songbook with lyrics you can understand. Bennet sang them in a way that could touch one’s heart and soul. Not all “crooners” have that gift.

SONG: I left my heart in San Francisco. High on a hill it calls to me...

Because of you, Tony, there’s a song in my heart.

I’m Cal Thomas.

SONG: When I come home to you, San Francisco, your golden sun will shine for me.

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