Our family always loved Tony Bennett. Loved him in a different way than they did Sinatra. Sinatra was sexy. The women in the family were driven to say things like, “He could put his shoes under my bed anytime.” The men wanted to be like him. Bennett had a different attraction. He was more like family. The women in our family all thought he looked like their brother Chibby.
Chibby and Tony shared the same Roman nose. Tony’s features were more chiseled. Both men had the same curly hair style. No one in my family was more loved than Chibby. And perhaps it was some of that love they showered on the singer.
Chibby knew his sisters thought he resembled Bennett. He basked in the comparison. Chibby thought he could sing like Bennett, also. My family — me included — thought so, too. As a kid, I loved it when Chibby would suddenly get this smile on his face and he would break out in song. Sort of like Tony Bennett.
Both Chibby and Tony Bennett served in the military during World War II. Bennett served as an infantryman in the late stages of the war. Chibby served with Patton and survived the Battle of the Bulge. But I’d have to say it was mostly the facial resemblance to Chibby that led our family to idolize Tony Bennett. And I’ve often thought of my family’s identification with him as I followed the singer’s career over these many years.
Back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, my father collected recordings of pop music. Mostly 78s. Mostly male crooners. A good deal of Tony Bennett recordings as he came into prominence. “Rags to Riches.” “Cold Cold Heart.” “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Dad was the only one allowed to touch the records — 78s notoriously got scratched very easily. So, dad always kept them in their paper sleeve — inside the cardboard covers. Dad liked to sing along with the recordings. Especially the Tony Bennett recordings. Dad couldn’t sing like Bennett or even like Chibby, for that matter. There were times he sounded more like the comedian George Burns. But he was undaunted. And there came a time when he wrote a beautiful song in honor of my mother (Review column — MY FATHER’S SONG FOR MY MOTHER).
Bennett’s career really took off, thanks to his signature song I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO. And eventually my family got to see him perform in a nightclub. I was too young to accompany them, but I heard all about it in endless detail. My mother seemed more interested in comparing Bennett’s physical appearance to her brother Chibby’s. My aunts — her sisters — did, too. Years later, when mom was in her 80s, we got to take her to see Tony Bennett one more time. He was appearing at the Academy of Music. Tony by then was an international star. He had survived the rock era. Once again, he was making gold records. Mom had never seen a performance in the Academy of Music. She sat riveted during the show. Afterward, she remarked how much Tony looked like her brother Chibby, who had died 20 years ago.
Tony Bennett’s singing career became known as much for its longevity as it did for anything else. While Sinatra had suffered problems with his voice and with remembering lyrics, Bennett rolled on flawlessly. His son, Danny, astutely managed the singer’s career, skillfully keeping his father relevant despite the passing years. Bennett recorded two successful albums with Lady Gaga. Those sessions spawned a very close friendship between the two superstars. A special based on the unusual bond between two singers from different generations appeared recently on PBS.
We used to argue on the street corner back in the day about who would replace Sinatra once Frank was gone. It was understood that no one could truly replace the iconic Sinatra, but Tony Bennett comes the closest. Sinatra agreed. Late in life, he called Bennett the best singer around, or words to that effect.
Through the years, Tony Bennett has received numerous awards. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A Kennedy Center honor. Twenty Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. He became a skillful painter enhancing his reputation as a renaissance man. But none could’ve projected that Tony Bennett would perform until he retired at the age of 95. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago.
When I think about Bennett’s contribution to American arts, I think the most important one is that he kept alive the best in American popular music — what my generation likes to call THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK. If it were not for Tony Bennett, it is easy to see how American pop composers such as Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen and others might have faded into obscurity — relics of another time and place. If you doubt me, note that a recent poll of the top 25 songs of all time did not list even one song Sinatra or Bennett ever recorded. It’s as if “Tin Pan Alley” never existed. Radio stations don’t play much, if any, of this music anymore, except for niche programming like Sid Mark’s SUNDAYS WITH SINATRA. Sinatra, Torme and Ella are all gone. Michael Buble seems to get TV time once a year doing Christmas specials. But pairing Lady Gaga, kd Lang and Elvis Costello with Bennett has kept those wonderful American classics alive. Gotten these songs played on stations that normally wouldn’t play them. Introduced these songs to future generations.
In South Philly we would say, “You did good, Tony.” My family would’ve been proud.