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10/06/11

All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett

A fascinating bio of the "not fascinating" vocal legend

Toward the end of All the Things You Are, his entertaining and informative biography of Tony Bennett, author David Evanier quotes jazz critic John McDonough on the book’s subject. “Tony is just kind of a regular guy,” McDonough tells him. “There’s nothing that’s fascinating about him. If you went up to him, he’d probably be glad to shake your hand. You wouldn’t be intimidated, because there’s nothing there that’s really intimidating. There’s not a lot of mystery there with Tony Bennett. He’ a great singer, but he’s not a fascinating person.”

This begs two questions: First, why write a biography of a person who is not fascinating? And second, why title that book All the Things You Are when apparently there’s a lot more that Tony Bennett isn’t than is? Not to worry though: those questions are answered more easily than you might think, because it’s that utter un-fascinating-ness that makes Tony Bennett both a special artist and—as the life story told within repeatedly makes clear—a stand-up guy whose integrity has never taken a blow and who sincerely lives for his music (and, less heralded but no less important to him, his painting). All the Things You Are—its title taken from a song perhaps best known from Bennett’s 1962 Carnegie Hall live album—turns out to be the perfect title after all, because all of the things Tony Bennett is are right there for all the world to see.

It’s tempting to brand the book a hagiography, but it’s not one. Evanier—who previously published bios of two other Italian-American singers, Jimmy Roselli and Bobby Darin—doesn’t need to whitewash Bennett’s story because the record speaks for itself. Although Frank Sinatra adored him, Bennett is not a Sinatra hothead. When the subject of the Mafia enters the picture—and no Italian-American artist of Bennett’s era could evade them—it’s explained that Bennett simply did not have the temperament to deal with their like and bought his way out of their clutches rather than play into their game. “He was emotionally unsuited for them,” Evanier writes. “He had a sensitive, artistic and contemplative nature even as he was ferociously ambitious and tenacious about his music.”

Accordingly, the bulk of the story is given over to the music. Bennett is and always has been a singer’s singer. A voracious appetite for song drives him; he knows who he is and what his gift is, and he has protected and nurtured that gift from the start. On those occasions in his life when he did flare up, music usually dwelled at the root of his anger: a producer trying to coax him into recording songs he did not feel, a record deal gone sour, a promoter not respecting him. Bennett’s much-publicized rock-bottom period of the 1970s—he departed Columbia Records, his home of two decades, for the lesser MGM label; nearly overdosed on cocaine; and battled the IRS—could, as well, be attributed to the music. By that time singers of Bennett’s ilk had largely been cast aside by the rock-dominated music business and Bennett, refusing to alter his style or pander by covering contemporary pop (ironic considering that Lady Gaga is among the collaborators on his new best-selling Duets II album), went down with the ship rather than embarrass himself with inferior wok. Only when he went to his sons and asked for their help in escaping his morass did his still-ongoing resurrection begin to take shape.

For Bennett, the music has always been more than a meal ticket. Born during the Depression he discovered early on that he could sing well and get paid for it. After having turned professional, he began his recording career in the early ’50s, modeling his vocal approach after the coolness of Stan Getz’s saxophone and the precision of Art Tatum’s piano. It was Duke Ellington who advised him to mix in a bit of grit (“He was ready for that,” writes Evanier, “because of his hardscrabble life experience.”), resulting in the signature style he maintains to this day.

Bennett’s first chart-toppers came in 1951 and for the rest of that decade and into the early to mid-’60s he was commercially golden, racking up Grammys and living the good life. He sang only songs that meant something to him. “Like an actor,” Evanier writes, “he thought autobiographically as he sang, as if the lyrics described an experience he had gone through.” Sinatra called Bennett the “only other” saloon singer and praised him often. He wasn’t the only one—Bennett has long been the rare artist of his generation loved by critics and a vast variety of music fans, many of whom did not even know who he was until Bennett was already in his 70s or early 80s (he is 85 now). Free again to be the singer he is, and maintaining an active life (his third and current marriage has been his most successful), Bennett has flourished in recent years, his youthful exuberance and undiminished charm and talent bringing to him a level of success and adoration he hasn’t enjoyed since the dawn of his career.

Remarkably, through it all, the ups, downs and in-betweens, he’s remained humble and relatively untouched by it all, a regular Tony who delights in taking walks around his beloved New York, always dresses nattily, maintains a wide smile, and continues to love doing what he does best. “Tony Bennett can still say with utmost simplicity that if he had been a singing waiter for the rest of his life, he would have been happy,” writes Evanier, referring to an early job the young Anthony Benedetto held. There really aren’t many others about whom that can honestly be said, and that in itself is pretty darn fascinating.

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