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He sang all his life. When New York's Triborough Bridge (known today as the RFK Bridge) opened in May of 1936, Tony Bennett--then a boy singer from Astoria who loved the work of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor--sang at the opening. Mayor Laguardia, he recalled, patted him on his head!

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[avatar user=”Chip DeFFaa” size=”96″ align=”left”] Chip DeFFaa, Editor-at-Large[/avatar]

Oh, I’m sorry to note the passing of Tony Bennett.  He was 96.  And  what a glorious life he had.  I just loved him!  A superb artist on stage.  A man of tremendous warmth off stage.  Totally genuine.  He gave the best hugs.  He had that big heart.  He  once told me he loved singing, he loved painting, he loved people.   I saved the Christmas cards he sent; he’d painted the images seen on his cards  himself.

He sang all his life.  When New York’s Triborough Bridge (known today as the RFK Bridge) opened in May of 1936, Tony Bennett–then a boy singer from Astoria who loved the work of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor–sang at the opening.  Mayor Laguardia, he recalled, patted him on his head!
He subsequently got into jazz, and listening to the jazz artists he loved helped him find his own jazz-pop style.  And once he found it, he was set for life.
He fought in World War Two, helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp.  And was so shaken by the horrors of war, he became a lifelong pacifist.

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  He topped the charts  in the early 1950s with hits like “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches.”  He recorded his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” in 1962. The first time I heard it–I was a kid at Camp Bernie in Hackettstown, NJ, and it was playing on the radio in the mess hall–I just thought it was the greatest new song I’d heard in years. And he scored with “The Good Life” and other songs in that era.
 Whether he recorded with a lush orchestra (like Percy Faith’s), the ever-swinging Count Basie Band (two albums), or the Ralph Sharon Trio,  he sang with tremendous integrity.  He picked songs he believed in, delivered in his own straight-ahead jazz/pop style.
The one time he  yielded to pressure from a record producer and recorded contemporary songs he did not like or believe in, he got physically ill in the recording studio.  He threw up and said he’d sooner find a new record label than record material he considered to be crap. He  said he felt the way his mom, a seamstress, did when asked to make a cheap dress to cut costs.  And he DID switch to a different record company.
I admired his  musical integrity so much  I was friends with the late pianist John Bunch (whom I profiled in one of my books),  back when John  was Bennett’s music director; and John thought it was one of the greatest gigs you could ever have, because Tony’s taste in music was impeccable and he was just like a fellow musician.  Tony and the trio worked as one.  And Tony maintained artistic control of his career.  He didn’t care if he was playing a small  jazz club, a college theater, or a huge concert hall (like Carnegie Hal), so long as he could sing the songs he wanted.
He wasn’t interested in being an actor. He got offers to play  characters  in movies; tried it, didn’t  care for it.  He saw himself as strictly a singer.  In later years, Tony was happy to record  with much younger artists (like Lady Gaga and  Elvis Costello)–so long as they met him on his musical terms, singing the songs he believed in.  And the results were terrific.
Sometimes, in a live performance,  I’d see him put down the microphone to sing one number (like “Fly Me to the Moon”), unmiked.  And you’d hear, in the club or concert hall, Bennett’s voice, projected naturally, beautifully.  No amplification.   And that was an extra thrill.
He kept his standards  high throughout a career spanning seven decades.  He  always had first-rate accompanists (from Ralph Sharon to Billy Stritch).  And always delivered a first-rate  show.  He proudly said he had the best manager in the business–his son, Danny!
And boy!  Was he good about giving back to others.  “The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts”–which Tony Bennett established in his home town of Astoria–is absolutely magnificent.   If you visit that school (built in 2009; Bennett was there for the opening), it has state-of-the-art everything.  A theater with better sound and light than most professional venues. (Those kids are so lucky! I’ve never seen a finer school building. I love the shows they put on there. And local kids from that school that he founded, like Mateo Lizcano, are already turning up on Broadway.)   Tony Bennett gave lots of money to establish that school, which he chose to name in honor of his friend, Frank Sinatra, rather than name it after himself.
I could go on.  But Tony Bennett was a class act all the way.


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