No, he’s not at the Melody Tent this summer, though for years – decades, actually - a concert by Tony Bennett has been one of the staples of its summer schedule. I used to take my mother to see him when he was in his 60’s. Kathy and I went to hear him there when he was in his 70s. Now, at the age of 88, Tony Bennett is still in command of the stage and his voice, packing the houses, performing over a dozen concerts this summer alone, including one at Tanglewood on August 31. No moss grows under this man’s feet. He is one of the few pop singers who has never lost touch with the contemporary audience. In fact he’s about to release a new album with – of all people – Lady Gaga.
The last time I heard him at the Melody Tent was in August 1998, when he was 72. He was performing with his long-term musicians, the Ralph Sharon Quartet. Ralph Sharon, who looked about 80 then, opened with a piano solo. Then Tony came bounding down the aisle and onto the stage like a boxing contender, immediately launching into his set of standards. His voice has grown increasingly gravelly over the years, but it still held up, far more than Sinatra’s did at the same age. True he now punches out the lines more than he casts them, but he’s always had an almost operatic control of his voice. And he knows how to make his audience feel special. As Kathy put it, “He has the good sense to let his audience adore him.”
Superb vocalist though he is, I admire Tony Bennett even more as a showman. He seems like a ring master, a hawker of songs and musicians, a referee and a contender all at once. After nearly a half century of live performances, his patter, like his renditions, have gotten a bit hoary, but he makes you feel that he is giving himself to you without reservations. Unlike Sinatra, he’s incapable of singing a true blues song. Even a torch song like “I Want To Be Around” is delivered in an upbeat style. Perhaps that’s why one of his few flops was his album of Sinatra covers, Perfectly Frank. Sinatra’s basic performing personality was cool and introspective. He could sound alone on a stage with a 50-piece band behind him. Bennett, who prefers to perform with a Trio or Quartet, always seems surrounded by a large retinue.
The audience consisted largely of women over 60 (some of them in wheel chairs, enthusiastically clapping their hands), but there was a healthy sprinkling of young people as well. Like Bill Clinton, he conveys the sense that he is always enjoying himself and happy to be here – and he is.
After three encores, and after everyone else had stopped applauding, a young man in his twenties kept clapping, whistling and hooting, trying to bring Tony out one more time, shouting at the audience, “What’s the matter with you all ?” An usher came up to him and told him to stop “making a disturbance.” But he was righteously defiant: “I’ll clap for my man as much as I want to,” he retorted. “I missed Frank – I missed Elvis – I’m not gonna miss this one!”