July 25, 2023 | « back

Remembering Tony Bennett

I remember seeing Tony Bennett on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the children’s TV show. He was basically explaining what his job was to the children who were the show’s audience. It was a straight-ahead presentation of a working jazz musician, a description of himself that was simple and honest.

Tony was such a bright light in our world and the longevity of his career gave him a depth, a gravitas that tied together two main generations of contemporary, popular music, Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder. Our baby boom generation turned away from our parents’ music: Sinatra and the Las Vegas Rat Pack ethos, Big Band swing and Broadway. In the mid 60s, starting with folk music and Dylan, then the Beatles, Motown, Memphis, San Francisco… we would have our own music, and we drew a distinct line with the past. Somehow, Tony Bennett weathered that abandonment and persevered. Then, in his late 70s, he was reborn. I remember his MTV, Unplugged appearance. Tony was back on top and there was never a more worthy comeback.

He embodied the sophistication and urbane gentility of the High Society Jazz Era but without the macho arrogance and decadence of the Rat Pack, as parodied on SNL by Bill Murray’s Lounge Lizard. I never met a more believably positive person. He radiated his love of being alive. You never got a whiff of sarcasm or cynicism. I first met him at a benefit (for something which now escapes me) but he was immediately open and present and, when he told me he dug my music, I totally believed him. Whenever our paths crossed, he’d insist I run for President. I was never completely sure he was kidding.

He offered advice on maintaining my voice and gave me a tape of Bel Canto exercises that I still use today: ”Use it or lose it, James.” We must have worked together a dozen times. He joined me for my series at Carnegie Hall and later invited me to sing on his Duets album; a high point for me. Whenever I wonder just how long I should carry on touring and performing in public, I think of his example: Tony Bennett, the greatest last man standing…

~ James Taylor

Photo: Michael Lutch