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Fans still have a heart for crooner Tony Bennett

The singer's albums, old and new, sell steadily, an anomaly in an industry that prizes trends and flash.

By MARTY CLEAR
Published February 25, 2005


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Tony Bennett has resisted the occasional suggestion that he change with the times.

It has been years since Tony Bennett had a chart-topping record, but every year, he's one of Columbia Records' bestselling artists.

"I have 50 years of recordings, and they're all still selling," he said in his velvety and instantly recognizable voice during a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment. "The old ones sell as well as the new ones."

He realizes that's an anomaly in an industry, in a culture, obsessed with flash, trends and hits. He's the sly and determined tortoise who has left in his wake countless has-been hares, burned out and exhausted after their 15-minute sprints of fame.

"You look at the sales figures at the end of the year," he said, "and we actually sell better than anybody else. It works out well for Columbia too, because they don't have to promote these records."

Bennett's enduring success actually sends a heartening sociological signal: Pure quality and impeccable taste still succeed better than anything else.

Bennett has sensed that all along. He has resisted the occasional suggestion that he change with the times and the trends. He knows what he likes, and what the music-loving public will ultimately return to.

"I do the American songbook, and there's still a tremendous demand for that," he said. "I try to do the definitive version of each of these songs."

One way he accomplishes that is to surround himself with instrumentalists who are his artistic equals.

Both on The Art of Romance, his latest album, and onstage, the foundation of Bennett's music is a four-piece combo: guitarist Gray Sargent, drummer Clayton Cameron, bassist Paul Langosch and pianist Lee Musicker.

Many vocalists prefer working with a larger orchestra, but Bennett and his audiences appreciate the freedom that a jazz quartet brings to his performances.

"If you have a big orchestra and you want to be spontaneous and you want to play a request, all you can do is call out No. 59, and the audience sits there while everybody turns pages looking for No. 59," he said. "With just four musicians, you can play whatever you want, and the audience subliminally knows that they're going to hear something different than last night's audience heard."

Another benefit of the small ensemble (joined for tonight's Ruth Eckerd show by Bennett's daughter, singer Antonia Bennett) is that Bennett can give each musician a chance to shine individually. He makes sure to present them as artists in their own right.

One surprise for audiences who have not yet heard The Art of Romance, released last year, is that Bennett has, for the first time in his career, co-written a song. At the urging of his son Danny, who is also his manager, Bennett penned the words to All for You, set to a Django Reinhardt tune.

"I told him I didn't want to do it, because I can't compete with the great lyricists," Bennett said. "But he said, "That's okay, give it a try.' When I finally did it, it came out in about an hour. And the audience loves it."

Then with a modest, almost embarrassed little chuckle, he adds, "Maybe I could have been another Paul McCartney."

PREVIEW: Tony Bennett, 8 tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Tickets are $125, $70 and $60. Call 727 791-7400 or go to www.rutheckerdhall.com

[Last modified February 24, 2005, 10:20:04]


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