In praise of Tony Bennett

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Time Out praises Tony Bennett‘s balls, music and honesty as the legend rails against reality TV, British coppers and bad acoustics…

  • In praise of Tony Bennett

    Tony Bennett

  • Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. You might expect Mr Anthony Benedetto (better known to 50 million record buyers as Tony Bennett), on returning to his once-native London this week for a brace of intimate shows, to wax lyrical, as most gregarious octagenarian megastars do, about how much he’s looking forward to taking tea in a red telephone box. But no; the veteran crooner instead despairs of the capital’s recent vulgarisation. ‘London has changed,’ he tuts. ‘It used to be more civilised. The police used to be polite, now they carry guns. I’m against guns, it’s the lowest form of human behaviour.’


    Of course, the London Bennett lived in – the early ‘70s, swinging version – is quite different from any modern version of the metropolis you might be familiar with. ‘My favourite neighbourhood was Grosvenor Square,’ says Bennett of his former stamping ground. ‘Michael Caine lived in the same building as me. I used to greet him as he walked in and out of the building – he had a beautiful convertible Rolls Royce. ’

    But it’s not just the showbiz life he liked. Bennett hasn’t forgotten his humble roots (his favourite Italian dish is still spaghetti and meatballs), and says his favourite thing about London is you. ‘I just like the quality of the people,’ he says. ‘Not the royalty, not the upper class, the normal people.’

    Of course we all know the basics of the Bennett story by now: born in a blue collar New York neighbourhood, discovered by Bob Hope, scored huge hits in the ’50s and ’60s, including ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ and ‘From Rags To Riches’, and then rediscovered by the MTV generation in the mid-’90s thanks to a stunning appearance on ‘Unplugged’. Bennett has always been cool, but never fashionable, from his earliest days as a pop singer (having been advised not to try to ‘compete with Sinatra’ by singing his favoured standards) to his current position as the last survivor of his generation. As you might expect, Bennett is a stickler for old-fashioned values, and doesn’t reckon much to today’s music industry, or its products. ‘There was a guy in the ’50s who was way ahead of his time,’ he chuckles. ‘He launched a label called Horrible Records and his motto was, “If it’s horrible, it’s bound to be a hit!” ’

    Citing his own career as an example, Bennett believes it’s important for musicians to pay their dues rather than seeking, or being pushed into, insta-celebrity through marketing budgets or reality TV shows. Remarking on how it took years for him to learn his craft, Bennett maintains that his guest appearances on both ‘The X Factor’ and ‘American Idol’ left him appalled at how young wannabes are chewed up and spat out. ‘I had it out with Simon (Cowell) when I met him and suggested that he should open up tiny clubs across the countries so the kids could break in and learn properly. He said, “Oh I haven’t got time for that, I’m too busy making money!” ’ Since Bennett himself is worth more than a hundred million dollars, it seems that Cowell might have missed an important lesson there. While disturbing reject from ‘The X Factor’ Ray Quinn struggles to find a place in the public affection with his lukewarm and overly-reverential rendering of standards which were past it before he was born, Bennett is never off the Arctic Monkeys’ group stereo (singer Alex Turner gushed recently over his album ‘The Good Life’). There’s a reason for this, of course, beyond comparative vocal ability. Namely that Tony Bennett has genuine charm rather than a Cabbage Patch face, and balls in his trousers instead of Action Man underpants. Yet what irks him the most about the modern music scene is its homogeneity. ‘I grew up in an age of individualism,’ he says. ‘Today the whole scene has changed into a corporate scene where if you’re not doing what everybody else is doing, it’s not hip.’

    As a recording artist in the early, practically lawless years of pop, Bennett has experienced his fair share of record company machinations. Bennett famously quit Columbia in the early ’70s when they asked him to cut pop material (he said it would be like asking his seamstress mother to make an ugly dress), although this was too late to halt the release of the charity-shop favourite and all-round shit record ‘Tony Bennett Sings The Hits Of Today’. He speaks from experience when he complains that pop music is hyped to disguise its lack of quality. ‘The corporations employ a lot of people,’ he says. ‘So they have to employ trickery, by saying: this is your music, your parents don’t like it, buy it with your friends. But it doesn’t last. It’s not like Duke Ellington where the music goes on and on.’

    For his own part, Bennett tries to preserve his musical tradition by funding an arts school for underprivileged kids in New York, but he sees the dumbing down of entertainment as part of a wider conspiracy to keep us dumb.

    ‘The greatest gift is education,’ he says. ‘But I think governments generally, not just America or Britain, dislike individualism, they want everybody to just do what the corporations tell them to do. It’s really very unfortunate as, to me, you should educate people as much as you can.’

    This is one of the flashes of anti-authoritarianism that got Bennett in trouble in the army (where he was demoted after criticising an officer’s segregationist views). These days, Bennett describes himself as a ‘liberal democrat’ and believes that ‘the world is out of sync right now. The fact is we don’t have good leaders. America is still a great country but we lack leadership’. Aside from increasingly outspoken statements like this against the Bush administration, Bennett also pointedly invited the Bush-baiting Dixie Chicks to appear on his recent album of duets, effectively granting them showbiz rehabilitation.

    It’s refreshing to hear that Bennett’s outspokenness extends to his friends as well as his foes. His gigs this week take place at his beloved Ronnie Scott’s, the venue where he hung out during his early ’70s residency in the city, catching the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Wes Montgomery. But while Bennett is looking forward to the shows, like many sharp-eared jazz fans he’s not so keen on the newly refurbished club’s acoustics. ‘I know that they did major overhaul of the decorations and everything else but it’s not as intimate or acoustically correct as it used to be.’

    Still, you get a sense that he’s not too keen on change full stop. After all, this is a man who has bought his suits from the same London tailor for over half a century.

    ‘Tony Bennett: An American Classic’ CD and DVD is out now on Sony/BMG

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jack schulz
jack schulz

Is there a dvd of tony bennett in London where he enters the theater from the lobby and walks down the isle to the stage? He had an old guy playing piano who was chosen midway thru the audition process. I believe the show occured sometime in the 80s or 90s.