Tony Bennett has been in the music business for more than 40 years, but when it comes to promoting himself in the video age, the 67-year-old crooner still knows all the latest moves. While autographing copies of his new recording, Unplugged, at a downtown Toronto music store last week, Bennett decided, on the spur of the moment, to drop by the studios of MuchMusic, the music-video channel, where he had been interviewed two days earlier. Less than an hour later, he was on the air live, reading a news report about the Rolling Stones’ surprise nightclub appearance in Toronto the night before, and chatting with MuchMusic anchor-babe Monika Deol. Later, he sang George Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm, accompanied only by his talented young drummer, Clayton Cameron, playing a snare drum with brushes. “I know that everybody who watches this station likes to dance,”
Bennett said. “And we’ve given you guys a really great beat to think about.”
But while he enjoys exploring a new medium, there is little about Bennett that is new. In fact, his repertoire and delivery have changed little since he was discovered by Pearl Bailey in a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1949. Bennett still performs in either a suit or a tuxedo. He also draws his material from what he calls “the Great American Songbook”—his last two albums, Perfectly Frank (1992) and Steppin’ Out (1993) were collections of old Frank Sinatra hits and songs from Fred Astaire movies. Last week, perform-
Tony Bennett is stepping out with a new crowd
ing in the first of three shows at a 1,000-seat hall in the Performing Arts Centre in the Toronto suburb of North York, Bennett’s voice sounded more raspy than it did in his heyday. But backed by a trio led by his longtime pianist, Ralph Sharon, Bennett paced the two-hour show with plenty of tempo changes and peppered it with Vegas-style vocal flourishes, yelling “You’re beautiful!” and “What a night!”
at the end of a couple of songs. Yet, as deliberately dated as Bennett’s style is, over the past two years he has won a large following among listeners in their 20s and 30s—and both Bennett and his fans still are not quite sure how to explain the phenomenon.
Bennett is not the only veteran artist to enjoy a recent surge in popularity. Sinatra is 78. Yet his Duets album—new versions of his old hits sung with such younger performers as Natalie Cole and Bono, the lead singer of U2—has sold close to three million copies since its release last November. Veteran country singer Johnny Cash, 62, has also recorded a song with U2, and was invited—but declined—to perform on this summer’s annual Lollapalooza new music tour.
In Bennett’s case, even he concedes that at least part of his resurgent popularity is the result of a clever promotional strategy. Bennett allowed his son, Danny, 40, to take over as his manager in the mid-1980s. “My son knew there was another, younger audience out there,” he said. Danny Bennett secured his
father spots on TV shows that appealed to youthful viewers. “He started me out on an SCTV skit,” Bennett recalled in an interview at his Toronto hotel last week. “And I was on The Simpsons. And then David Letterman.”
The Bennett revival kicked into high gear last September, when he appeared as a presenter on MTV’s Video Awards show. In a playful role reversal, Bennett appeared dressed in a velvet top hat and shorts, part of the customary garb of his co-presenters, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They, in turn, wore tuxedos. As well, MTV placed Bennett’s stylish video for the title song from Steppin’ Out in its regular rotation. That TV exposure led to a spot on a December tour sponsored by rock radio stations in several U.S. cities. Bennett shared the bill with Porno for Pyros, the Lemonheads and several other bands in 10,000-seat halls.
Members of that new young audience were scarce at Bennett’s Toronto concerts last week, however—possibly due to the steep ticket prices, which started at $32 apiece and climbed to $75. Two who stood out among the grey heads were Toronto nightclub manager Stephen Petrie, 32, and his girlfriend Carolynne Rodgers, 30, a preschool teacher. When asked to analyze the appeal of Bennett’s music, Rodgers replied: “It’s just cool.” Petrie added: “People have just started digging deeper into the vaults.”
The next day, dozens of young Bennett fans showed up at a lunchtime mini-concert and autograph session at a downtown record store. “He’s, like, pure star. Real cool,” said Derek Mazzei, 20, who is the lead singer of a local rock band called Caddis Fly. Mazzei, wearing purple running shoes, baggy sweatpants and earrings in both ears, said that some of the appeal of Bennett stems from a fresh interest in jazz. “Jazz is getting into hip hop now. It’s getting into everything.” He added that many young listeners dislike being stereotyped as Generation Xers who only listen to suicidal grunge music. “It’s all bullshit,” said Mazzei. “But they have to categorize us.” Bennett finds it encouraging that listeners and record executives alike are beginning to rebel against marketing stereotypes, and against the “big score” philosophy that has driven record companies since the 1960s. Prior to that, he explained, record companies recognized the value of allowing performers to build up a catalogue of dozens of records.
But after the Beatles, Bennett said, record companies only wanted blockbuster albums that could sell millions of copies. In his own case, he severed his contract with Columbia Records in the early 1970s because they wanted him to sing rock songs. “They wanted me to sing Janis Joplin,” Bennett said. “I told them, Wou do it.’ ”
He rejoined Sony Columbia in 1986, and says the company has given him complete freedom to record the standards that he loves. And looking ahead, that is exactly what he intends to keep on doing. “The myth has always been that after 35 you start to go downhill,” Bennett said. “Well, I had very good teachers. They taught me well how to preserve my voice.”
And Bennett likes the new company he is keeping—the young performers who have lined up to sing with him in recent months. Both Elvis Costello and k.d. lang joined him on his Unplugged album and TV special, which aired on the U.S MTV channel in early June, and he says that he would like to record an entire album with lang. Bennett’s style may not have changed, but he’s steppin’ out with a whole new crowd.
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