NEWARK — “Ladies and gentlemen … welcome to the Tony Bennett Show!” declared the announcer. To hear those words spoken live and aloud in 2013 is nothing short of a minor miracle and a major blessing.
Sinatra. Martin. Presley. Como. Williams. Crosby. All of these men were singular talents possessing incomparable voices who have long since departed from this world. So thank the heavens that we can still count Tony Bennett among us. From the opening notes of his first song at Sunday evening’s sold-out NJPAC show, the crowd was instantly transfixed by the legendary entertainer.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who would eventually find their vocal prowess diminish over time, Bennett is still in top form at the ripe, young age of 86. Hitting all the high notes in “Maybe This Time.” Seducing the audience with “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Inducing a clap-along to “I Got Rhythm.” Bennett was in total control and clearly enjoying himself.
Sunday night’s show inside of Prudential Hall played out like a highlight reel of the 20th century’s finest compositions and a testament to the singer’s own shrewd choice of quality material. Upbeat numbers such as “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and the rousing “Sing, You Sinners” had the enamored crowd of all ages completely enthralled. The bouncy “The Best Is Yet to Come” lifted spirits to a higher level as the iconic performer continued to light up the unadorned Newark, N.J. stage.
It can be said that great men lead fascinating lives which tend to generate extraordinary yet true stories. And Bennett’s life is no exception. Early in the evening, the singer was almost coy in reminding the packed house of a truly jaw-dropping piece of his personal history. While performing as an opening act for Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in 1949, the young man was discovered and actually renamed “Tony Bennett” by no less a Hollywood titan than Bob Hope.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on Aug. 3, 1926, in New York City, the youngster was fueled by twin passions for painting and singing. The constant childhood hardships of the Great Depression and a horrific tour of duty battling Nazi troops on German soil during World War II would undoubtedly served to reinforce the entertainer’s strong humanitarian beliefs in the years to follow. Oftentimes referred to as “Tony Benefit” because of his tireless philanthropic pursuits, the singer’s colossal heart and warmth were on full display during the concert on Sunday.
Bennett’s huge heart is evidenced in his role as a proud and loving father whose grown children still factor into his everyday life. At a dark time in the 1970s, when the singer was struggling artistically, financially and personally, it was his oldest son, Danny, who helped him get his life and career back on track. Still serving as Bennett’s manager after more than 30 years, it was Danny who was instrumental in reintroducing the entertainer and his incredible body of work to receptive younger generations.
But on Sunday night at NJPAC, the Bennett child in the spotlight was his youngest daughter, Antonia. Opening the evening with several songs backed by Bennett’s tight, four-piece band, the 38-year-old exhibited her father’s trademark poise while performing her more contemporary brand of popular tunes. A delightful moment occurred later in the evening during a duet with her father. Trading off lines on an upbeat Stephen Sondheim composition, the elder Bennett at one point broke out in dance, pirouetting alongside his beaming daughter.
To suggest that Tony Bennett’s music is merely ‘romantic’ would be a gross understatement and an utter disregard for the man’s stunning vocal abilities. Exuding the same sophisticated charm and sly sex appeal that drove the teenaged girls of the bobbysoxer generation wild more than a decade before Beatlemania, Bennett was in full command of his unique brand of magic on Sunday. During any slight pause between songs, smitten women of all kinds took the opportunity to shout out, “I love you, Tony!” as if it were still 1953 and not 2013. Think about that for a moment.
Old favorites such as “Just In Time” and “When You’re Smiling” sounded fresh and new again. The evening’s set list was so varied with timeless melodies that even his powerhouse signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” almost felt like an afterthought. Bennett has always abstained from straight-up rock ‘n’ roll, but there was no denying the flat-out rollicking feel of “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road).” He even transported us back to the earliest days of his recording career with a note-perfect rendition of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and his smooth Bennettized version of Hank William’s country classic, “Cold, Cold Heart.”
In lesser hands, the simple act of slowing down a song’s tempo can be a misguided kiss of death, unintentionally creating something akin to a dreary funeral dirge. Not so with Bennett. Nobody on this planet can slow down and just outright own a song quite like Mr. Bennett can. During his stellar take on “The Way You Look Tonight,” you could actually see the mesmerized crowd melting into their seat cushions. Never maudlin, never overly sentimental, his timing and delivery remains impeccable after more than 60 years in the recording business. His wistful spin on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” left more than a few concertgoers’ eyes moist.
Bennett’s consummate professionalism and discipline to his craft are well-known and widely documented. But how he chose to conclude Sunday evening’s performance should be required viewing and a much-needed wake-up call for today’s sadly over-produced and classless pop stars and would-be idols. After making several well-received references to just how exceptional the acoustics are inside NJPAC’s Prudential Hall, the singer put his microphone down and walked up to the edge of the stage. With only the accompaniment of his guitarist, Bennett then proceeded to crush — and I mean crush — the living daylights out of “Fly Me to the Moon” … without the aid of a microphone! There was an audible gasp of communal astonishment as Bennett’s thundering and unenhanced voice filled the entire interior of the intimate concert hall.
If any flaw could be found concerning Sunday night, it might possibly rest with the expectations of the audience. When Bennett finally left the stage and the houselights went up, the eager crowd stood there slightly stunned, waiting for more. We wanted more. I wanted more. There was a certain brevity to the evening and a bittersweet sense that the show had just ended before it even began. At the age of 86, certainly no one is demanding or even asking for an endless Springsteen-style marathon from Bennett, And maybe that’s all for the best. There is an old show-biz adage that goes, “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” And from what I overheard from the delighted fans exiting the exhilarating, sold-out show, he sure did. For the record, we consumed twenty-one wonderful songs within seventy-four unforgettable minutes.
In a recent November 2012 interview, the entertainer summed up his motivation for performing well into his seventh decade: “I can’t wait to hit the stage because I love to make people feel good.” And he’s still delivering on that mission statement well into the 21st century. During one of the opening songs in Sunday’s concert, Bennett asks the adoring crowd, “Who’s Got the Last Laugh Now?”
And the answer is quite obvious to all: You do, Mr. Bennett. You do.
David VanDeventer reviews the arts for Worrall Community Newspapers and can be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to Josh Balber and the fine folks at www.njpac.org.