Tony continued working the Playboy circuit; in 1967, he was the headliner in what the club advertised as their “Festival of Stars,” a unique event that united clubs across the country. Then, in 1968 and 1969, he made two appearances on Playboy After Dark: in the first season, he sang on a show (#4) taped on August 9, 1968, and in the second season he takes center stage on episode #5, taped November 20, 1969. It’s that 1969 episode (actually aired in 1970) that’s the most remarkable one yet: nearly the whole show is built around Tony. Where some of the After Dark shows have an unusual, almost random juxtaposition of guests (the 1968 show with Tony also co-stars author-commentator George Plimpton and the rock band Steppenwolf), the 1969 show is entirely focused on Tony.
On a vintage 1969 turntable, we hear Tony’s first hit, the “Because of You,” and Tony’s 1951 voice is soon joined by Tony’s 1969 voice as he enters, walking down the stairs with a stunningly beautiful brunette model about a foot taller than anyone else in the room. In his prime spot, he starts with an electrifying version of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” which pivots around a drum solo by Tony’s old friend Louis Bellson. (John Bunch, Tony’s accompanist for most of the late 1960s and ’70s, is on piano.) After a series of telegrams from friends (Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Don Rickles) congratulating Tony on 21 years in show business (I’m not sure why they picked 1948 as his first year). Then Tony is joined by a guest who really is a surprise for his fans: Mitch Miller, the classical oboe virtuoso turned pop record producer who signed Tony to Columbia Records in 1950. Together, they run through a lovely readings of Tony’s 1951 hit, “Blue Velvet” with prominent oboe obligato.
Tony then entertains questions from the party-going crowd (he cites Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee as his favorite singers), including Hefner and his girlfriend Barbi Benton, which leads to a song that he introduces as a favorite, a warming and winning rendition of Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens,” as the girls in the room start looking moisty-eyed at their escorts, and even more so at Tony. Tony and Hef then introduce entertainer George Kirby, who does his specialty “Walking Happy” and a set of impressions, including one of Tony, and next, Canadian saxophonist Moe Koffman plays a funky soul-jazz number on two tenor saxophones at once. For the next segment, Tony and guest Joe Williams (who, coincidentally, also appeared on the February 1960 show) sing a very loose duet on “I Gotta Be Me” (introduced by Steve Lawrence but a hit – and a mantra – for Sammy Davis, Jr.), leading into Joe singing “The Song is You” as a dedication to Tony. They do another semi-impromptu duet, this time on “What the World Needs Now” arranged as a rather aggressive and swinging – not to mention thrilling – jazz waltz. Then the company runs through some other Tony hits, including “Rags to Riches” (Tony), “I Won’t Cry Anymore” (Joe), “The Shadow of Your Smile” (George), ending with Tony’s own mash-up of his two all-time biggest hits, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” by Tony with Moe Koffman on flute. The show ends as it began, with “Because of You” sung by everyone, including Mitch Miller and Hef. Of all the episodes of the 1968-1970 series Playboy After Dark, the 1969 Tony Bennett episode, which ends with Hef toasting Tony as an artist “who leaves his heart in every song he sings,” is by far the most exciting.
There’s a happy postscript involving Tony and Ralph: in 1980, Tony was again in the market for a piano player and Ralph again was, fortunately, available: they began working together again, for a relationship that last another 20 years and encompassed Tony’s so-called “comeback” and his MTV triumph in 1994-1995. If you ask us, he’s never been away.