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Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

 

In his debut performance at the 1996 Playboy Jazz Festival, internationally acclaimed singing legend Tony Bennett proved he has not only bridged the generation gap, but as the New York Times put it, “He has demolished it.” Bennett’s vocal counterpoint—in a surprise duet with world-renowned jazz singer Joe Williams—clearly demonstrated why Bennett is a legendary star with multi-generational appeal.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Still more Tony Bennett…

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

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.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

More Tony Bennett…

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

In the early 1960s, Tony Bennett and Ralph Sharon enjoyed working the Playboy clubs so much that Ralph made a decision that seems rather surprising from the perspective of 50 years later. The London-born pianist was living in New York with his wife at the time, and she was tired of her husband being continually on the road; and began putting pressure on Ralph to part company with Tony.  It came to head around 1965: Tony was hired for what would be his only acting role in a major motion picture, playing the secondary lead of “Hymie Kelly” in the Hollywood behind-the-scenes drama The Oscar (released in 1966) with Stephen Boyd and Jill St. John. While filming in the daytime, Tony accepted a long-running evening gig at the Playboy in Los Angeles.

And to their mutual surprise, they made Ralph an offer as well.”The Playboy people came to me and said, ‘we’re opening a place in San Francisco and you can be the musical director. It will be four trios on different floors and you’ll be in charge of the whole thing.’ It wasn’t a great money thing but I did it and while I was there I got a local TV show that was on 5 days a week with the trio that I had so I was doing that.” Ralph became the first musical director for the San Francisco Playboy Club when it opened in November 1965. Ralph added, “Actually I really would never have left Tony if she hadn’t insisted.” If Mrs. Sharon was happy, Mr. Bennett was very disappointed. As the recordings that the singer and the pianist made around this time show, the two had built up a remarkable rapport over the seven years or so that they were together. However, Tony was always a gentleman. At one point, when singer Herb Jeffries – another friend and inspiration of Tony’s – was headlining at the Playboy Club with Ralph, Tony made a point to drop in and sing three songs. A Variety reviewer was present and he noted that Tony, “was just doing a favor for Ralph, but he’s giving it the same effort as if he were getting his usual fee.”

But unfortunately, Ralph was disappointed with the San Francisco experience: the situation was worsening with his wife and ultimately, they would divorce. And as much as he liked the Playboy organization, nothing could compare with the thrill of playing for Tony Bennett night after night.  Ralph soon realized that the headliners, like Tony and Peggy Lee, for instance, all had their own musical directors, and he was left playing for the “emerging talent.”  Said Ralph, “They were people on their way up, let us say, but after being with Tony – well, I couldn’t believe it.” He ultimately left the clubs – and Mrs. Sharon – to go back on the road, this time with superstar singer Robert Goulet.  Again, that was less of a thrill musically than playing for Tony – like a true Broadway leading man, Goulet tended to do every number the same every night, in contrast to Tony, who liked to change things up just to keep everything interesting. Ralph wanted to rejoin Tony, but it was awkward, “I couldn‘t just call Tony and say, ‘Hey, you know something, I’d like to come back to you!'”

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Tony Bennett & Playboy, Part Two:

tony bennett the playboy club

Tony Bennett

On February 13 1960, Tony Bennett was a guest on the first season of Hugh Hefner’s TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse; this was almost exactly in between the inaugural of President Kennedy and the opening of the first Playboy Club, in Chicago (less than two weeks later). This particular show is a remarkable document of the singer at an early pinnacle.  When Tony Bennett played the big concert houses, such as Carnegie Hall—where he debuted in 1962 (on the heels of “San Francisco”)—he had a full orchestra with strings behind him, and that was true of the major Vegas amphitheaters as well. But when he played at the Playboy, in the best tradition of the magazine, he cut everything down to the bare necessities.  The 1960 show documents Tony working the way he would at the clubs just a short time later, with his most prolific accompanist, the brilliant Ralph Sharon, and a trio with bassist Hal Gaylor and Tony’s longtime drummer and sidekick Billy Exiner. It starts with Tony and Hef making small talk – joining them is Phyllis Diller, who has just done a comedy routine (and who’s in almost every shot of Tony’s segment and whose trademark cackle is heard throughout).

Looking immaculate in his tux, Tony and Ralph swing out with a bright, bouncy, opener “Just in Time,” a 1956 song from Bells are Ringing that Tony had already helped make into a standard with his highly-successful Columbia single. Seated next to Ralph on the piano bench, he takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one. On a more serious note, he then sings what he announces as “an old Gershwin song,” namely  “Love Walked In.” It’s serious, but never dire, Tony delivers it looking vaguely upwards, as if in prayer, with a joyful expression, even as Sharon supplies block chords reminiscent of George Shearing.

At this point, Tony briefly introduces the Ralph Sharon Trio, and lunges into “You Can’t Love ‘Em All” (a new Sammy Cahn – Jimmy Van Heusen song from the Marilyn Monroe movie Let’s Make Love). He’s especially playful here, toying with the melody and ad-libbing like crazy in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to in a more formal setting.  He runs up a staircase on the line “there are mountains that you can move,” and dances his way down, exclaiming, “I feel like Fred Astaire.” In the second chorus, he does something that he may not have ever done elsewhere on film: just out of sheer capriciousness he hits some deliberate flat notes on the key word, “You can’t love ’em all, no you can’t love ’em all!”

Everyone’s spirits are unbelievably high, as the camera pans around and we see some of the other guests, among them Count Basie, Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross. Still, somehow it’s Diller who requests the next song from Tony, asking for her favorite song from The Sound of Music, which had just opened on Broadway less than three months earlier.  It’s a musical theater hymn that he sings without an overabundance of either piety or levity, a perfect balance of both; it’s reverent but not saccharine. I don’t think there’s ever been a more appealing version of this archetypical Rodgers and Hammerstein anthem.

Holding Diller’s hand – or at least her black opera glove – Tony then swings an exciting homage to what was already one of his favorite cities, the 1922 jazz classic “Chicago.”  He’s even looser and more jubilant here, almost bouncing around the room, throwing in a reference to someone named “Eddie Hubbard” rather than “Billy Sunday” as the guy who was unable to shut down the windy city. As he heads towards a climax – literally surround with Diller to his right, Basie to his left, and Hefner in back of him – he does a few running-in-place style time steps, as if he’s got so much energy that singing isn’t enough, he’s got to be dancing at the same time.

It’s an amazing and unique moment. It’s almost as if Hugh Hefner and Tony Bennett are single-handedly christening the new decade, the new administration, and the new era of entertainment that was about to come, all in a single stroke.

We are extremely fortunate that this show exists, and that it has been issued on home video.  Here is a link to Tony’s entire 10-minute segment, with all four songs: Tony Bennett complete segment Playboy’s Penthouse (February 13, 1960)

 

To be continued.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents