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With his star-studded new collection Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues, the incomparable Tony Bennett continues his extraordinary string of albums centering conceptually on themes or tributes including such classic Bennett discs as 1992's Frank Sinatra homage Perfectly Frank, 1993's testimonial to Fred Astaire Steppin' Out, 1997's gift to Billie Holiday Tony Bennett on Holiday, and 1999's Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool.
World-renowned as a nonpareil pop singer who has introduced his audiences to dozens of songs from the "Great American Songbook," Bennett has remained for five decades one of our leading male singers of traditional pop songs and, most incredibly, brought this music and his vocal style to the MTV generation through groundbreaking music videos and his Grammy-winning 1994 Album Of The Year, MTV Unplugged, which featured duets with Elvis Costello and k.d. lang.
But the eclectic Bennett, who scored a pop hit in 1951 with his cover of Hank Williams' country milestone "Cold, Cold Heart," has never been known as a blues singer. Nevertheless, the blues has always been a major influence on his work which is why he brought together a VIP list of musicians to join him on Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues.
"I did Ray Charles' 'Everybody Has the Blues' with him on my album The Art of Excellence," recalls Bennett, referring to his appropriately titled 1986 watershed collection. "And while I've been influenced by jazz through the years, its roots are in the blues: Count Basie was all blues-- albeit optimistic blues--and I was the first white guy to sing with him! In fact, my first recording was a blues classic: 'St. James Infirmary.' But I always like to be different with each album, and the blues is such a change from what most people think when they think of Tony Bennett--and then to make a record with all these great artists!"
Here Bennett refers to his esteemed and varied duet partners on Playin' With My Friends: Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel, Diana Krall, B.B. King, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Kay Starr, and Stevie Wonder. "I can't believe who we got!" he marvels. "Everyone was terrific in their own way, and I just love how each one sounded just a little different than the one before." Saluting the legendary producer Phil Ramone, who oversaw the project from the production end, Tony adds, "He was so creative and simpatico in the way he treated everybody, it was a good time from beginning to end."
Bennett thoroughly researched the contents of Playin' With My Friends by loading up on blues albums in Greenwich Village and then "doing my homework." Each guest artist then "hit a homerun," he declares. But a few of the album's 16 selections deserve special mention. He honors his old jazz/blues hero and friend on "Old Count Basie is Gone," one of four tunes on the disc recorded with solely with Tony's longtime, super-stellar backup group the Ralph Sharon Quartet (starring pianist Sharon, who introduced Tony to his signature song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Paul Langosch, and drummer Clayton Cameron). Bennett's duet with female jazz/blues singing great Kay Starr on Basie's "Blue and Sentimental" fulfills the Count's long-ago wish that Bennett both record the song and cut it with Starr.
A duet with Natalie Cole on the jazz/blues staple "Stormy Weather" pairs Bennett with the daughter of the jazz pianist and pop singer whom Tony also worked with. "I never met a guy who was so talented," says Bennett of his late friend and colleague Nat King Cole. Bennett also revisited two singers that he had performed with previously: Diana Krall ("Alright, Okay, You Win") and k.d. lang ("Keep the Faith, Baby"). Krall and lang appeared as opening acts on Bennett's last two concert tours. Bennett also performed "Moonglow" with k.d. lang on his "MTV Unplugged" special; the subsequent recording of the program earned Tony Bennett the Album of the Year Grammy Award in 1995.
The male duets on Playin' With My Friends include Bennett's collaboration with Billy Joel on Joel's "New York State of Mind," which has already been embraced by Adult Contemporary radio station programmers and has been released to these stations as the album's first radio single.
And the experience of performing with Stevie Wonder on "Everyday (I Have the Blues)" was extra special. "I loved working with everybody," says Bennett, "but this is the first time I worked intimately with Stevie. I'll tell you, to me, after listening to the way he thinks and the process he goes through, he reminds me of a young Irving Berlin: He has the same instinctual approach Berlin had in knowing what the public likes to hear!"
Playin' With My Friends ends with the album's title track, which was written by contemporary blues star Robert Cray and features the guest vocalists on the album singing one last time with Bennett.
These guests, incidentally, had to adjust to Bennett's spontaneous, old-fashioned one-take live studio approach, which usually results in the completion of an entire album recording session in three days, Bennett prefers this "live" approach to making an album because it results in a recording that makes his listeners feel as if they were sitting right there in the studio with him. In the case of Playin' With My Friends, Tony's natural recording process was particularly well-suited for best capturing the free spirit of the blues.
"With all the technology, the only thing any artist can contribute to a recording is feeling," says Bennett. "One of the reasons why Louis Armstrong was such a genius was that he had so much feeling, from the first note he played to his raspy growl. When you listen to a record, whether it's country or rap or whatever it is, you ask, 'Is this an honest record? A sincere record? Is the feeling there?' Normally, you have to wait 16 bars to see if a record has feeling, but with Billie or Frank or Ella--and the blues as a whole--it's there from the first beat. That's what's always attracted me to the blues--like jazz, it is improvisational and spontaneous.
The release of Playin' With My Friends coincides with Bennett's 75th birthday, which was celebrated in August at a gala event at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Billy Joel serenaded the birthday boy with a terrific rendition of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The party commemorated Tony's extraordinary and enduring career at the pinnacle of popular music, a career that took off shortly after Bob Hope discovered Bennett in a New York nightclub in 1949 and has resulted in scores of albums, ten Grammy awards, and legions of fans of all ages and musical tastes.
And, even at 75, Bennett shows no signs of slowing down. Having just wrapped up his summer tour with k.d. lang, he's forever on the road again.
"We play all over the world, and in these troubled times to still be sold out everywhere is quite remarkable," he says, "and everything is top of the line." Indeed, Bennett, who has concert bookings through 2003, has a plethora of premium appearances scheduled in the weeks following the release of Playin' With My Friends, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (his second Parade appearance since his first float ride in 1962) and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.
Meanwhile, the accomplished visual artist continues to paint and exhibit his artwork, most recently at the prestigious Butler Institute of American Art, where his paintings from Italy were put on display, and Bennett's original painting "Homage To Hockney," is part of the museum's permanent collection.
"I get to sing whatever I want and paint whatever I want, and enjoy the freedom that every artist wants," says Bennett, who recently established the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York as another tribute to his friend and musical mentor--and still finds time for tennis with such worthy competitors as women's champion Virginia Wade.
"To quote my old friend Jack Benny, 'Years ago I was always nervous that I was finished in the business, but now I'm so old that it's impossible because I'm a star!' He really said that, and it just broke me up! But as I get older and stay as healthy and as spirited as I am, I'm still very much interested in everything. And so many young people now make up my audience and cheer at the end like they want another hour. That's all I care about, and I can't ask for anything more."
The son of a grocer and Italian-born immigrant, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926, in the Astoria section of Queens. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he continued nurturing his two passions -- singing and painting. His boyhood idols included Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, both big influences on Bennett's easy, natural singing style. Tony sang while waiting tables as a teenager then performed with military bands during his Army enlistment in World War II. He later had vocal studies at the American Theatre Wing school. The first time Bennett sang in a nightclub was 1946 when he sat in with trombonist Tyree Glenn at the Shangri-La in Astoria.
Bennett's big break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope noticed him working with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in New York City. As Bennett recalls, "Bob Hope came down to check out my act. He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, 'Come on kid, you're going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.' But first he told me he didn't care for my stage name (Joe Bari) and asked me what my real name was. I told him, 'My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto,' and he said, 'We'll call you Tony Bennett.' And that's how it happened. A new Americanized name, the start of a wonderful career and a glorious adventure that has continued for fifty years."
His initial successes came via a string of Columbia singles in the early 1950's, including such chart-toppers as "Because of You," "Rags To Riches" and a remake of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" and has ten Grammy Awards to his credit, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He had 24 songs in the Top 40, including "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life," "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me) and his signature song, "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," which garnered him two Grammy Awards. Tony Bennett is one of a handful of artists to have new albums charting in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's. He introduced a multitude of songs into the great American Songbook that have since become standards for pop music. He has toured the world to sold out audiences with rave reviews whenever he performs. Bennett re-signed with Columbia Records in 1986 and released the critically acclaimed The Art Of Excellence. Since his 1991 show-stopping performance at the Grammy Awards of "When Do The Bells Ring For Me," from his Astoria album, he has received a string of Grammy Awards for releases including Steppin' Out, Perfectly Frank, and MTV Unplugged, for which Bennett took home "Album of the Year," Grammy's top honor. In celebration of his unparalleled contributions to popular music with worldwide record sales of over 30 million, Columbia/Legacy assembled Forty Years: The Artistry Of Tony Bennett. The four-CD boxed set, released in 1991, chronicles the singer's stellar recording career and documents his growth as an artist inspiring Time magazine to call the set "≤ the essence of why CD boxed sets are a blessing."
Tony Bennett has also received an Emmy Award and a Cable Ace Award for his groundbreaking television special, "Live By Request...Tony Bennett" which featured a unique interactive format in which the viewing audience called in song requests to the performer live during the program, a concept created by Bennett that has become a regular special on the A&E network. Bennett has also authored two books, What My Heart Has Seen, a beautifully bound edition of his paintings published in 1996, and The Good Life, his heartfelt autobiography released in 1998.
Throughout his career he has participated in humanitarian causes and concerns. He has raised millions of dollars for diabetes research through the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation which established a fund in his name. His artwork graces the cover of the American Cancer Society's annual holiday card, proceeds from which are earmarked for cancer research. He has worked with the Center for Handgun Control and has supported environmental issues through such organizations as Save the Rainforest and the Project for Walden Woods.
In the 1950's, thousands of screaming bobby-soxers surrounded the Paramount Theatre in New York, held back only by police barricades, to see their singing idol Tony Bennett. Today the children and grandchildren of those fans are enjoying the same experience. As The New York Times pointed out, "Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises."
Which is proof positive that if the music is good it will abide. From the 20th century to the 21st and beyond, the legacy of Tony Bennett--like that of the blues themselves--promises to live forever