Lost in the shuffle earlier this fall between Amy Winehouse's death and the media blitz for Tony Bennett's Duets II was news that Sony was planning to release a sizable Bennett box set. Out now is Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection (Sony)—an aircraft carrier of a set that includes everything Bennett ever recorded in a studio, remastered. That's right, the mother lode, the works, the whole enchilada. And some.
For this sweeping, all-encompassing project, Sony managed to forge a deal that gave it access to every label on which Bennett ever recorded. This is on top of its own massive Columbia archives in the Sony vault (1950-1972 and 1986 to the present). How extensive is this box? Well, it clocks in at 74 discs, 1,056 tracks or 2.2 days' worth of listening (48+ hours of straight music). That's roughly how long it would take you to fly around the planet on a nonstop commercial jet.
While this box isn't for everyone, it remains a remarkable document and timeline. First, you wind up with Bennett's complete catalog in one iTunes folder. Second, you are able to listen to his entire studio career in chronological order. Third, you can hear how his style changed multiple times over the years, and where the turning points exist. Fourth, you hear music interpreted differently over time. And last, you can hear what holds up and what doesn't. I actually was surprised by how much remains sterling and remarkably relevant and exciting today, including chunks of his early '50s material.
For those not in the know, Bennett's professional singing career dates back to the late '40s, when New York was awash in spectacular, hungry singers performing at clubs and hustling for a break. Bennett was a born optimist and a skilled politician, as baritone saxophonist Sol Schlinger told me a few weeks ago:
"I can remember Tony in the late '40s at Charlie’s Tavern. He used to come by and talk to everyone. At the time, he used the name Joe Bari. He’d go from table to table to get with the guys. Nobody minded him crashing in. He had such an upbeat, sunny personality. At that point, he was just a singer from Queens. By the time he signed with Columbia, he had come up through the ranks of many of the jazz musicians on the scene."
Signed by Columbia's Mitch Miller after a few good words from comedian Bob Hope, Tony Bennett's first studio singles for Columbia were recorded in March 1950. Miller insisted Bennett avoid trying to sound like Frank Sinatra, who was still signed to the label. Instead, Bennett seemed to combine the delivery of Frankie Laine and Dinah Washington. In Bennett's early sides for Columbia, you hear Laine's popular "crying" style leveraged with bel canto phrasing and Washington's searing jukebox delivery. It was a shrewd move by Bennett, though there also seemed to be a push at Columbia to have him record some songs in Italian to retain his ethnic appeal and distinguish him from the more assimilated Sinatra.
Throughout the early '50s, Bennett recorded many outstanding and little-known singles that appear in this box. The list includes Once There Lived a Fool, I Won't Cry Anymore, Please My Love and Silly Dreamer. There also were quite a few lousy songs that were done way over the top. But in nearly every case, Bennett was cast as a passionate, sensitive male singer. His image as the boy from the next tenament connected solidly with urban female radio-listeners and record buyers, especially given each song's dramatic, orchestral send-up.
By 1954, when Bennett recorded Cloud 7, his first album, there was a Columbia push to cast him as a jazz singer. This move continued through Tony (1956) and Every Beat of My Heart (1957), which placed him with jazz drummers Art Blakey, Jo Jones and Chico Hamilton as well as Candido Camero and other Latin percussionists. Bennett also was one of the first pop singers to team with Count Basie in 1958 (Basie/Bennett) and '59 (In Person!).
But Bennett's potential exceeded the jazz idiom. Besides, his voice wasn't especially comfortable in the space. It was too upbeat and not troubled enough. Like Nat Cole, Bennett had impeccable time and phrasing that appealed to both jazz and pop audiences. So Columbia began to swing him back and forth between genres, from intimate jazzy settings (Alone Together, Sings for Two, Hometown My Town) to saccharine dates with strings and choirs for the pop market. The latter was neatly exploited by Columbia House, the label's record club arm (Sings a String of Harold Arlen, To My Wonderful One).
Throughout this period, Bennett's voice was working way too hard. He was belting out songs as if his room and board depended on it. He clearly was trying to navigate Columbia's a&r heads who claimed to know best as well as manage a series of dates with soupy arrangements.
One of the early turning points for Bennett on Columbia was Mr. Broadway, a 1962 release that was a compilation of earlier tracks plus a batch of recordings made in 1960. It was something of a test case to see how Bennett fared with show tunes. The marriage was a natural fit, and Bennett began to record songs from shows that were just opening. It's hard to imagine another singer who took on musicals and movies as smoothly and elegantly as Bennett.
But the big turning point was I Left My Heart in San Francisco, released in mid-1962. Yes, the single was a massive hit. But it's here where Bennett begins to restrain his power a bit and learns to relax. Bennett either gains control of the production process at Columbia or the label's a&r staff finally realized his sweet spot.
San Francisco begins Bennett's truly great period for Columbia, when he becomes the intimate sentimentalist. Just look at the monumental albums that followed: When Lights Are Low, Who Can I Turn To, Songs for the Jet Set, The Movie Song Album, A Time for Love, Tony Makes It Happen, For Once in My Life, Yesterday I Heard the Rain, I've Gotta Be Me, Sings the Greatest Hits of Today, Something, Love Story, Summer of '42 and With Love—his last for Columbia. Sunrise, Sunset, a compilation of earlier material, was issued in '73.
These 15 albums are superlative and among the finest and most tasteful pop vocals ever recorded. And much praise is due arrangers Marty Manning, Ralph Burns, Johnny Mandel, George Siravo, Don Costa, Marion Evans, Torrie Zito, Peter Matz and Robert Farnon.
And I think this is where I'm going to leave this box today. To be fair, I need to give the next four decades' worth of recordings an in-depth listen and consideration.
As the storyline of this box demonstrates, Bennett began on a search to find himself artistically in 1950, had no choice but to leave himself in the hands of studio pros, shook off older record company hands in 1961, producing 10 years of music that remains unrivaled. The next 40 years would be yet another adventure, with creative ups and downs. I'll be back to you as soon as I've given all of these dates repeated listens.
JazzWax tracks: If you're in the mood to give yourself a holiday present, this one is a swell candidate. A number of the albums have been out of print for years. You'll find Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection (Sony) only at Barnes & Noble for now. The book chain managed to secure an exclusive distribution deal with Sony. The box features two CDs of rarities, including five tracks with Stan Getz from 1964. There also are four discs of Columbia singles.
JazzWax clips: Here's Torrie Zito's masterful arrangement of the Gershwins' Hi-Ho from Yesterday I Heard the Rain (1968)...
Here's Larry Wilcox's arrangement of Maybe September, the theme from The Oscar, from The Movie Song Album (1966)...
And here's Ralph Burns' arrangement of Days of Love from For Once in My Life (1967)...