Fall 2005 -- When Frank Sinatra died in the spring of 1998, many critics and music lovers lamented his passing as “the end of an era.” The legendary singer had defined “the standards” for millions of avid listeners since the late 1930s. In hundreds of inspired recordings and thousands of public performances, Sinatra brought passion, perfectionism, a broad musical vocabulary, and a heartfelt love for some of the greatest collections of little black dots ever put down on paper.
That’s why for so many, Sinatra’s death seemed to symbolize the demise of the standards as well. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the standards’ death have been greatly exaggerated. These timeless tunes have enjoyed resurgence in popularity during the past quarter century as singers from widely divergent genres and backgrounds have turned their talents to the music that never really went away.
What exactly are “the standards”? Though it suggests something definitive, the term itself is elusive. Sure, we all know them as the classic songs from the 1920s through the early 1950s that came largely from the great jazz bands and Broadway musicals of that era. Like those pieces, the names of their composers—Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn, Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington—are legendary, and as recognizable as they were fifty years ago.
The standards are rooted mainly in jazz, the art form which singer Tony Bennett calls “America's greatest contribution to world culture.” But some have even come from rock ‘n’ roll; the Beatles’ “Something” and “Yesterday,” for example, come to mind as pop pieces that already have stood the test of time.
So, what makes them timeless?
“First and foremost, these are songs everybody can relate to,” says Jenny Blankenship, who teaches ballroom dancing. “They have lyrics which go straight to the heart, about falling in love, the heartbreak of love lost, of finding hope and emerging victorious over life’s obstacles. Best of all, you can sing along and dance to them as well.” Specifically, you can dance to them as a couple,rather than stand apart and clumsily shake your extremities. Blankenship notes the related comeback of ballroom dancing, “where a man can hold his sweetheart and gracefully move her across a dance floor…. These are the songs that inspire romance.”
During the cynical post-Vietnam years the standards catalog languished.
Yet during the cynical post-Vietnam years—from the late 1960s through the 1980s—the standards catalog languished while recording executives pushed rock. Veteran crooners and torch singers were forced to fulfill their contracts by adapting rock tunes to the “easy listening” format then dominated by pop tune–meisters such as Paul Williams, Burt Bacharach, Barry Manilow, the Carpenters, and Neil Diamond. Johnny Mathis was able to make the transition. Sinatra’s efforts were more awkward, as he strained to adapt his velvet voice to stuff like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”
But Tony Bennett couldn’t do it. His 1969 compilation of rock covers, Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, flopped badly and mercifully has been retired from his active discography. By 1972, after over twenty years with Columbia Records, Bennett left rather than continue to record and perform music that held no place in his heart. Instead of packing it in, though, he headed off to England, where he played to sold-out houses and recorded a pair of records on independent labels with piano legend Bill Evans. Still, by the end of the decade Bennett found himself stuck in Los Angeles, unhappy, divorced, and commuting to Vegas to perform gigs for casino audiences.
But you can’t keep a good man down—or a good tune, for that matter.
As the 1980s drew near, filmmakers seemed to sense the public’s enduring appetite for great melodies. Directors such as Peter Bogdanovich (in What’s Up, Doc?,1972, and Paper Moon, 1973), Francis Ford Coppola (in the Godfather movies, 1972 and 1974), George Roy Hill (in The Sting, 1973), and Woody Allen (in Manhattan, 1979, and Stardust Memories, 1980) built their soundtracks around ditties from the Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Oddly, when we think of movies that exemplify the 1970s, these are the ones that come to mind: pictures set in the Depression, or in wartime America, and set to the music of Cole Porter, Scott Joplin, Harold Arlen, Ray Evans, Hoagy Carmichael, and George Gershwin.
It was just a matter of time before the recording industry caught on, too. In 1978, Columbia Records—the same label that had handed Bennett his walking papers six years earlier—took a gamble and released Willie Nelson’s landmark tribute to the standards, Stardust, named in honor of Hoagy Carmichael’s signature tune. Nelson, who had already written a few tunes that would become standards in their own right, set out to record the “songs I grew up with,” arranged for a honky-tonk country ensemble.
“The fact that we did ‘Stardust,’ ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ ‘Moonlight in Vermont,’ ‘Blue Skies’ just opened up the possibilities of getting a wider audience to listen,” said Nelson. “From the older people who remember these songs, to the ones who never heard them before...a great song is still a great song.”
At the time, critics believed this little collection would be nothing more than a speed bump in Nelson’s country career before he got back On the Road Again. Instead, it caught on like a hot Texas prairie fire, heating up Billboard’s pop charts for 117 weeks and warming the country charts for almost ten years. To date, Stardust has sold over four million copies and continues to do brisk business.
Two years later, the Chairman of the Board himself climbed back into the top 40 rankings for the first time in eleven years. Lifting Liza Minnelli’s title song from Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film flop, New York, New York, Sinatra brought in arranger Don Costa to give Fred Ebb and John Kander’s boisterous song his trademark big-band sound. “New York, New York” became a Sinatra signature song, as familiar as “
My Way,” and for the same reason: both stress the powerful individualistic themes of staying true to one’s vision, of doggedly persisting in the face of possible failure, and of overcoming the odds without losing one’s integrity.
Suddenly the suits at the record companies began to see dollar signs in producing standards albums again. Meanwhile, erstwhile rockers began to take up the musical challenge posed by these enduring melodies.
The year 1981 saw folk-rocker Carly Simon release Torch, a steamy, sensuous collection of love songs and dirges for the brokenhearted, including “Body and Soul,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good,” and the more recent Stephen Sondheim closer, “Not a Day Goes By.” That same year, British new-wave singer Joe Jackson recorded a smart, lightning-quick salute to jazzmen Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan, Jumpin’ Jive, on which Jackson fronted a slick big band with his cheeky, scatting vocals. (Towards the end of the decade, Francis Ford Coppola hired Jackson to compose a brash and bouncy big-band score for Tucker: The Man and His Dream, a paean to the spirit of the self-made American industrialist.)
Then, in 1983, the standards trickle became a torrent with country-rock singer Linda Ronstadt’s album What’s New—ten scorching torch songs backed with lush orchestral arrangements by Nelson Riddle. Despite too much reverb in the processing, she pulled it off. What’s New and the 1984 follow-up, Lush Life, were Riddle’s final recordings before his untimely death in 1985; fitting that Sinatra’s long-time arranger would play so pivotal a role in bringing back the kind of music he had championed.
Since then everybody and his brother has been recording the Great American Songbook—oftentimes waning pop and rock stars trying to breathe new life into stalled careers, such as Toni Tennille, Barry Manilow, Pia Zadora (!), and, most recently and most successfully, Rod Stewart. But a new generation of artists has emerged, too. They are attracting millions of younger listeners to these classics with fresh interpretations, and are composing impressive new material that may one day become part of the ever-growing repertoire of audience favorites.
Here are ten albums by contemporary artists that have been setting new standards for the pop-music world:
Diana Krall, The Look of Love, 2001. (Verve, 314 549 846-2.) Like so many of the late Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who are drawn to the standards, Canadian vocalist and keyboardist Diana Krall fell in love with the music through her father. He was an accomplished stride pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge of 1920s and ’30s jazz pianists. “I think Dad had every recording Fats Waller ever made, and I tried to learn them all,” she said. Krall performed in jazz ensembles in the Vancouver area during her teen years and at seventeen won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. After a couple albums in the early 1990s, Krall hit it big with her tribute to the Nat King Cole trio, All for You (1996).
Rumors of the standards’ death have been greatly exaggerated.
Like Harry Connick, Jr., Krall is a studied and accomplished musician. Unlike Connick, though, she hasn’t let book learning inhibit her musical intuitions. The best quality of her albums is thematic and aural unity. Check out her version of Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Me Like a Man” from her latest offering, The Girl in the Other Room (2004), a collection of mellifluous and bluesy ballads, half of which were penned by Krall and her musician husband, Elvis Costello. Her fingers really have a way with the black keys that gets under the skin of this piece. Krall realizes that what blues is all about is what’s between the notes. Many have compared her playing to that of Bill Evans, but I think there’s also more than a little bit of Jerry Lee Lewis going on—this lady can really rock!
But it’s her 2001 recording of standards in a bossa nova vein, The Look of Love, that really does it for me (and about a billion other guys). The beautiful blonde’s dusky vocals spread soothingly over the calming strains of a bossa nova jazz combo, backed subtly by the London Symphony Orchestra. Opening with a relaxed version of the Gershwins’ “S’Wonderful,” Krall takes you on a luxurious ride in your own private club car for the better part of an hour. Sit back with this one, kick off your shoes, and enjoy a fine single-malt Scotch that’s as smoky as Krall’s alluring voice. She’s often been compared to Miss Peggy Lee, but on this one her unembellished sensuality is more reminiscent of Julie London’s, or Keely Smith’s absent Louis Prima. Besides her smash-hit title track, the best cuts are “Love Letters” (made famous by Ketty Lester, and as the title song for an Ayn Rand –scripted film), a wailing “Cry Me a River,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” where the halting, stiff-upper-lip quality in her voice ever-so-gently, and so poignantly, betrays the bravado claim of the title.
Willie Nelson, Stardust,1978. (Columbia Legacy, CK-65946.) Stardust is the one that started it all for me. More than a quarter century later, it still impresses me as much as when I first heard it as a teenager.
By the time Nelson recorded this landmark album, he was already a country-music legend. With a laid-back ensemble of country-music performers, Nelson brings his unadorned singing style to ten of the most accessible standards, from the title cut to another Hoagy Carmichael classic, “Georgia on My Mind,” and Irving Berlin’s optimistic “Blue Skies.” His take on “The Sunny Side of the Street” captures the hopeful spirit of so many Depression-era songs that helped keep Americans’ minds off the tough times.
But the pieces that work best here are the more sentimental favorites, like Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” and the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Nelson conjures quietly powerful images with his sincere storytelling. His love for these venerable melodies comes through on every track, mainly because of his understated knack of letting the music do most of the talking.
Linda Ronstadt, Hummin’ to Myself, 2004. (Verve, B0000887-02.) On this offering Linda Ronstadt’s voice is akin to a fine old montepulciano. Or a fine old Guarnerius, for that matter: she’s got range and power, supple intonation and piu dolce phrasing.
This is the fourth time Ronstadt has dished out this wonderful music, and Hummin’ to Myself is her answer to those critics who backhandedly complimented her 1980s recordings with Nelson Riddle, complaining that Riddle’s orchestra overpowered her. It’s true that while Ronstadt has a versatile singing voice it wasn’t a perfect fit for the torch-song genre, and recording engineers often overexposed her brilliant mezzo-soprano with the then-new digital technology. At times it almost sounded as though she were singing in a tiled bathroom.
This time around Ronstadt has melted beautifully into her material. Her voice, which hasn’t lost an ounce of oomph, is backed by leaner ensembles headed by veteran jazz pianists Alan Broadbent and Warren Bernhardt. Yet even with these restrained arrangements, Ronstadt has the musical sensibility not to overpower her accompanists; rather, she fits in with the music snug as a dovetail joint.
Her recording of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Day Dream” best exemplifies her approach. Backed by tenor sax, trumpet, and a low-key rhythm section, Ronstadt’s phrasing is so suave and understated that she even blends with the brushes on Peter Erskine’s snare. When her voice lilts up wide on a word, she glissandos effortlessly to a powerful vibrato.
She opens with an affecting but never affected version of “Tell Him I Said Hello.” Simple and sincere, Ronstadt digs down to her country roots to bring plain, honest beauty to this and other songs on the album. These include the title cut, “Cry Me a River” (which I prefer even to Krall’s sultry version), and “I Fall in Love Too Easily”—she has something going on here that hearkens back to those great heartbreakers which Patsy Cline sang so well.
The only low point is a scat rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry”; it’s technically good but comes off a bit overdone. But Ronstadt sure knows how to close on the high note, as she proved years ago with her haunting rendition of Benny Goodman’s sign-off tune “Good-Bye” on What’s New. On this album she intones “I’ll Be Seeing You” in a straightforward, bittersweet manner, almost narrating rather than singing. The sentimentality you feel isn’t coming from Ronstadt directly, but from emotions she so skillfully stirs up within you. That’s a rare talent, one that all the money in the world can’t buy. You either got it, or you don’t—and Linda Ronstadt’s got it.
Harry Connick, Jr., Come by Me, 1999. (Columbia, CK-69618.) A musical prodigy who studied with Ellis Marsalis and James Booker, Connick soared to fame in 1989 when movie director Rob Reiner tapped the singer-pianist to record a standards soundtrack for the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. Connick’s fresh take on “It Had to Be You,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Where or When” drew comparisons to the young Sinatra during his years with Tommy Dorsey. After composing and performing a promising album of big-band melodies, We Are in Love (1990), by decade’s end Connick recorded Come by Me, a much more mature and ambitious work.
However, it’s also a more uneven work. Come by Me is simultaneously Connick’s best and worst album. To fully enjoy it, it’s best to have an Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck, a good pair of demagnetized scissors, and lots of splicing tape.
Connick begins with a great title track, a composition from his own pen that starts off jaunty with a small combo and builds to full-out big-band swing. Come by Me shows him at his most innovative: great romantic lyrics set to a rousing and robust arrangement. He follows up with an off-the-beat version of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Charade,” which captures the simultaneous thrill and despair of the original.
These are songs everybody can relate to.
After that, though, the album just falls apart. He opens a high-swinging “Time After Time” with a gratuitous, heavy-handed interlude that tries hard (but fails) to sound like Thelonious Monk, is longer than the song itself, and finally propels me to the kitchen to microwave a TV dinner. His “Danny Boy” is so slow and overwrought that it makes Chopin’s “Funeral Sonata” sound like the “Minute Waltz.” There’s a ridiculous instrumental, “Next Door Blues,” that tries to blend Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington with jazz/funk fusion. It comes off as tasty as a peanut-butter-and-mustard sandwich.
Connick’s music is the standards sent to finishing school. Yet great jazz doesn’t come from music theory class, but rather from the school of hard knocks. The other problem with Connick’s more recent work is that he seems to have bought all the marketing hype about his being “the next Frank Sinatra.” Perhaps when he discovers that he’s the first Harry Connick, Jr., his music will fulfill the promise of his early efforts.
Ray Charles, et al., Genius Loves Company, 2004. (Concord Records, CCD-2248-2.) When I was a kid, I was privileged to grow up with great music always playing in the house. From my grandfather I inherited a love for classical, and for country when it was still “country and western.” From my dad, though, I inherited my appreciation for Ray Charles.
At the time, I was listening to a lot of soul, like Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding, and rock, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. After hearing a record of “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road Jack,” I asked my father what kind of music that was. “That’s Ray Charles,” he told me. I told him I wanted to know what kind of music he was playing. He gave me the same answer.
It took me a while to understand what he was getting at. Charles’s music was beyond category; it was his own invention, completely and utterly sui generis.
Take, for instance, his now-classic arrangement of “America the Beautiful.” My grade school music teacher actually thought I was unpatriotic because I couldn’t stand the standard version of the song. But it wasn’t the words I had a problem with—only the juvenile, sing-song meter: I thought the song wasn’t fit to be representing my country. Years later, after I left the Army, I saw Charles on television performing “America the Beautiful” before a baseball game. Using a gospel rhythm on his piano and singing off the backbeat, he transformed it into something so magnificently inspired that he made it all his own—and one of my all-time favorites. I guess that’s why he’s called, not “a genius,” but “The Genius.”
Charles died in 2004 at the age of seventy-three. His last work, Genius Loves Company, an album of duets, was a labor of love by an incomparable artist who knew his days were numbered. It was in the tradition of other famous duet releases, beginning in 1991 with Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable: With Love—the remarkable album featuring studio-engineered duets with her deceased father, Nat King Cole—and followed by star-studded duet albums from Frank Sinatra (1993) and Tony Bennett (Playin’ with My Friends, 2001).
Genius Loves Company opens strong, with Charles’s country/blues hit from the 1960s, “Here We Go Again”—this time a collaboration with Grammy-winning newcomer Norah Jones. There’s a cover with Diana Krall of Eddy Arnold’s country classic “You Don’t Know Me,” which Charles also recorded in 1962. On this take, the lyrics are parsed at just the right points, letting Krall’s satiny vocals work off Charles’s gravelly blues. For a duet with Willie Nelson on the Sinatra classic “It Was a Very Good Year,” the two old-timers barely sing, but rather narrate the lyrics, much like Jimmy Durante, or Walter Huston in his performance of “September Song.” On “Sinner’s Prayer” B.B. King is along for the ride with his beloved Lucille. With King’s scorching guitar work a perfect counterpoint to the staccato rhythms of Ray’s chords, and Billy Preston backing up on the Hammond organ, this is the album’s strongest cut. A finger-snapping rendition of “Fever” with Natalie Cole and an a cappella gospel take on “Crazy Love” with Van Morrison round out this solid effort.
Although Charles passed away before Genius Loves Company was released, he must have known that he was going out on top. While recording the album, he worked with director Taylor Hackford and actor Jamie Foxx on the biopic of his life story, Ray. At the 2005 Grammy awards Genius Loves Company walked off with all the important trophies, and Foxx took home the best actor Academy Award for his uncanny portrayal of the legendary musician.
Okay, it’s a cliché, but it’s still true: Ray Charles may be gone, but his music will be with us forever.
Danny Aiello, I Just Wanted to Hear the Words, 2004. (IN2N Entertainment, IN2N006001.) Yes. Danny Aiello, the actor. At first glance, I figured that this was just another vanity production. But when I heard this one I was pleasantly surprised: He really does have a good singing voice. And after a couple of weeks, I caught myself listening to Aiello’s release over and over again. No, he isn’t one of the greats, but his recording has really grown on me.
New artists are attracting millions of younger listeners to these classics.
What Aiello brings to this collection is what makes him so good as an actor: the ability to tell a good yarn and convince his audience through well-delivered dialogue—in this case, lyrics. There are plenty of sentimental favorites here. His version of the Mills Brothers’ hit “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” captures the right balance between hopefulness and loneliness, and brings back a lot of memories from my own childhood (it’s one of my father’s favorites). On bossa nova arrangements of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and Pee Wee King’s “You Belong to Me,” Aiello glides effortlessly from singing on the beat to the backbeat. His scat covers of “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” and “Pennies from Heaven” remind me a lot of Buddy Greco’s showstoppers.
Aiello is for real. I eagerly await his next release and hope it’s sooner rather than later.
Royal Crown Revue, Mugzy’s Move,1996–98. (Warner Brothers, 9 46931-2.) Established in 1989, Royal Crown Revue launched a swing revival that’s still going strong and has spawned a host of imitators, from former Stray Cats singer Brian Setzer to the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. But Royal Crown Revue still rules the roost, with entries such asWalk on Fire (1999) and Greetings from Hollywood (2004). Whether you call it the bookish-sounding “neo-swing” or use the moniker supplied by front man singer Eddie Nichols—“hard-boiled swing”—you’ll need a chaser after downing this powerful cocktail of swing laced with jive and rockabilly.
The accomplished sextet behind Nichols includes saxophonists Mando Dorame (tenor) and Bill Ungerman (barry), and trumpeter Scott Steen, backed by a rhythm section sharper than a stiletto: James Achor on guitar, Vinny Lepisto on bass, and drummer Daniel Glass. Nichols is, as they used to say, one hep cat: his voice brings to mind both Louies (Jordan and Prima), and the band’s work reminds you of the “crime jazz” soundtracks of Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini. Listen to this one while reading Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly and downing straight shots of Canadian Club.
Their signature tunes “Zip Gun Bop” and “Hey Pachuco!” are already standards in their own right. Their lightning-quick, be-bopping “Park’s Place” brings back the best of Dizzy and Bird’s jam sessions. Damn! These guys play tight! On “Beyond the Sea,” Nichols out-swings and out-swoons Bobby Darin. “Barflies at the Beach”—a send-up of Louis Prima’s version of “Sing, Sing, Sing”—closes this outing with a politically incorrect ditty about the delights of eating Charlie the Tuna…with a fin of Flipper thrown in for good measure. Yeah, man!
Norah Jones, Come Away with Me, 2002. (Blue Note, 7243 5 32088 2 0.) Okay, she’s not quite a standards specialist, but a lot of people think Norah Jones is well on her way to setting some new standards of her own.
The daughter of famed Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, Jones grew up in Dallas with her mother, and her work is firmly rooted in the dry Texas soil. The youngest in this survey (she was born in 1979), Jones burst on the scene in 2002 with this debut album of nine original songs plus a handful of country and pop standards. Renowned for her sweet and soulful set of pipes, Jones has often been compared to Billie Holiday. There’s also a touch of Roberta Flack and Emmylou Harris in there.
Come Away with Me is an honest-to-goodness country-blues recording that you can sit back with on the front porch rocker on a brisk autumn afternoon. Sort of like an early James Taylor, Jones mixes a little bit of country, folk, and soul into a collection that’s the perfect antidote to today’s insincere fare. The public must have sensed the same thing, because it bought this CD in boxcar loads, and in 2003 Jones walked away with eight Grammies, including album of the year and best new artist.
The title track, written by Jones, is the first new song I’ve heard in a long time that’s utterly believable. “Come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you,” she begs, and it’s as though she’s singing it to you, personally. To Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart” she brings an R & B feel, petitioning in anguish to her lover man to come back, body and soul. “I’ve Got to See You Again” is an exquisite modern torch song in the same vein, while “One Flight Down” is an upbeat tune with chord progressions right out of Paul McCartney’s Wings songs, like “Carry That Load.” She ends with Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” Close your eyes, let Jones’s words envelope you with their soulful caress, and you’ll sense that she’s a lot nearer than your living room speakers.
Steve Lawrence, Steve Lawrence Sings Sinatra, 2003. (GL Music, 60145.) Frank is still the alpha and omega of twentieth-century pop music. So many big-name artists have recorded tributes to the Kid from Hoboken that they can hardly be counted. The best of these are Perfectly Frank, Tony Bennett’s 1992 release; former flame Keely Smith’s2001 recording, Keely Sings Sinatra; and Rawls Sings Sinatra (2003), by Lou Rawls. But for me, the one that leaves the deepest impression comes from the Cantor’s son from Brooklyn.
Watching the Carol Burnett Show as a kid during the bell-bottom era of the early 1970s, I thought Lawrence and his lovely wife, Eydie Gorme, must have arrived from another planet—some elegant world where men still wore tuxedos, women hadn’t forgotten how to be glamorous, and class still ruled. The couple used to open for Sinatra during the great crooner’s last decade. But before he died, Sinatra shipped Lawrence a crateful of his most treasured scores, arranged by greats like Quincy Jones, Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, and Billy Byers.
Conducted by Lawrence’s son David, their arrangements now bring emotional goosebumps of recognition. Yet Lawrence makes these songs his own with a commanding tenor, impressive improvisational skills, and a wide vocal range—a voice that hasn’t flagged a bit over the decades. He takes on fourteen memorable tunes from Sinatra’s Capitol and Reprise years, like “The Summer Wind,” “The Best Is Yet to Come” (I prefer Lawrence’s version to Sinatra’s and Tony Bennett’s), and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” His performance of “For Once in My Life” is nothing short of inspired: he’s really channeling Frank on this one.
For decades, Steve Lawrence has been upholding the standards, and s’wonderful, s’marvelous that he hasn’t lost his touch. But of course, neither has the final singer on my list.
Tony Bennett, The Art of Romance, 2004. (Columbia, CK-92820.) As the 1980s loomed, Tony Bennett found himself stranded in the wilderness of L.A., twice divorced and nearly broke after being hounded by the IRS. After a brush with death from a cocaine overdose, Bennett reached out to his son Danny and put his career in his son’s hands. “Look, I'm lost here,” he told Danny. “It seems like people don’t want to hear the music I make.”
Son put father on tour at unlikely venues such as college campuses and introduced Bennett to a new, younger audience hungry for a universal musical message. By mid-decade Bennett had won back his recording contract with Columbia Records, and in 1986 he released his first album in over a decade, The Art of Excellence.
After a brush with death from a cocaine overdose, Tony Bennett put his career in his son’s hands.
Fifteen albums and two decades later, Bennett’s career is in high gear, and the ageless songster embodies the definition of “hip.” In 1994 he appeared with Elvis Costello and k.d. lang on MTV’s hugely popular show Unplugged. The recording taken from that program went platinum, selling more than a million copies to a generation many of whose members had never heard of Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, and winning the Grammy for album of the year. Most of Bennett’s more recent offerings have been tributes to the artists he admires, such as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, and Irving Berlin. In 2002, with k.d. lang, he recorded an homage to Louis Armstrong, A Wonderful World.
His latest release, The Art of Romance, is another gem. Although Bennett’s range and lung power have seen better days, he remains the reigning king of the standards—the man Sinatra once called “the best goddamned pop singer I’ve ever heard.” He still knows exactly where to hold one note and where to cut off another. He handles a pair of Johnny Mercer numbers, “Little Did I Dream” and “Time to Smile,” with sublime panache. On the tongue-in-cheek “The Best Man,” Bennett’s storytelling ability shines as he cleverly employs the turn of phrase behind the song’s title. He even shows deftness as a lyricist on his adaptation of an old Django Reinhardt melody, “All for You.”
But his strongest performances are to be found on Harold Arlen’s “Don’t Like Goodbyes” and the album’s closer, “Gone with the Wind.” There must be some long-lost flame in Bennett’s life that he still yearns for, because I swear he’s singing to her in these heartbroken elegies to lost love. But how many other male vocalists pushing eighty can convincingly present love songs meant for a younger man’s voice?
Few recording artists have enjoyed a second wind as enduring and rewarding as Bennett’s. By adhering to his ethic of hard work, by staying true to himself and his music, he now has more than a dozen Grammies and no regrets. Perhaps even more than Sinatra, Tony Bennett has lived and made music his way.
And perhaps more than anyone alive, he has never stopped raising the standards.