Everybody's Crooner

Tony Bennett's 50-year career is at its peak.

Tony Bennett Is Frank Sinatra for Everyman. Where Sinatra's iconic cool in his later years kept him lofty and almost unapproachable, Bennett, at 76, still seems like the average Joe, with a voice that is as quintessentially American as the standards he covers. It's a familiar soundhusky, soulful, warm, a bit wizenedthat evokes the kind of nostalgia usually reserved for characters you've known very well.

And, of course, in some way or another, a lot of us have grown up with him, whether through the longevity of 1962's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" or due to his re-emergence as our pre-eminent crooner since his MTV Unplugged recording won him new fans and a Grammy Award in 1994. Bennett added to his double-digit Grammy total this past week with a win for best trad pop album.

Before coming to town to help the Paramount Theatre celebrate its 75th anniversary, Bennett took a few minutes to talk about his amazing careerhe's been performing for half a century, and is making more money now than he ever did when he was youngerand what he's learned on the way.

Seattle Weekly: Is there a song you wish you could sing but you feel like, for whatever reason, you couldn't touch it?

Tony Bennett: Yeah, it's "Lush Life." You know, when Iwell, I hate to use this wordbut when I attack a song, I try to do the definitive version of the song. I try to tell a story with it; it's a bit of an acting job. But no one's ever done ["Lush Life"] like Nat King Cole.

Is singing for you more about technique or instinct? Or are they indiscernible at this point?

You have to first fall in love with the song, and then believe in the song, and then you can't wait to sing it because you like it so much. All of that comes into it. And then, also, by performing it various places, that has a lot to do with learning just the right tempo and the right feeling for the song.

How do you think you've been able to reach an MTV-friendly audience without selling out the music you love so much?

Well, my whole premise is the Golden Age of American Music. It's not "old" like marketing people would say"Well, that's old music"it's timeless. I always felt this way: I was taught to sing good songs. Now this is an inhuman thing, but we used to do seven shows a day at the Paramount with Louis Prima. And the management said, "Make sure you sing songs that everybody likes, 'cause in the morning you have your teenagers, in the afternoon you have your senior citizens, and at night you have your romantic couples." The audience was always different with each show. My point is, I found out that it works. When [rock promoter] Alan Freed [said], "This is your music, and your parents like the other kind," I just said, "Oh, no, no. . . . " When we went on TV with the Unplugged show, I just thought that was gonna workthe songs have substance, you know, they're all good songs. A lot of young people were coming up to me in those days and saying, "Who wrote that?" They thought [they were] original, new songs. It's a shame, 'cause it's our tradition. And funny enough, I sing all over the world, and I guarantee you, they know every one of those songs that I sing. They all know them.

You always talk about how Sinatra was a friend and a big influence in your work. But I can't imagine Sinatra recording a whole CD with k.d. lang (A Wonderful World, out this year). What do you think makes you so open to contemporary performers?

I have to answer this correctly. I kind of sympathize with them, because they don't have the vaudeville training that I had, or that Sinatra had. We were able to go from town to town and really break in the songs and learnit takes about 10 years to learn how to become a consummate performer. It's a learning processthe public becomes your teacher. Unfortunately, it's changed. The public was always the judge as to who they likedwhoever got the most applause became the big stars. And then in the late '50s, it started changing, and they just said, let's not listen to the public so much, let's just market [to] them. Like Elvis Presley was the first Coca-Cola bottle, and then there was the BeatlesPepsi Colaand then Dr Pepper was the Rolling Stones [laughs]. . . . They market everybody. So they became immense performers, but then there was an army of thousands of young people who had rock groups who tried to emulate that, and they would be good for about six months or a year, and then they would go with the next [group], the marketing people and the producers. It's not fair, because once you get the bug, all of a sudden six months or a year later they just say, "It all stopped, the public's had it, and now we're going with another act." Rosemary Clooney and I, when we started, they gave us five years before we found ourselves. They allowed us to survive.

swiecking@seattleweekly.com

 
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