Tony Bennett, Part Three

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In this essay (part 3 of 4), Jonathan Schwartz recalls the desert, the late-1970's and his close friends Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. 

I praised him and I praised him. I was well aware that Tony Bennett would pick up the phone from anywhere in the world and call friends to tell them he had "sold out" his 2 performances the night before. I was on that list, the recipient of dozens and dozens of "sold out" communications, listening to every call with affection and, in fact, devotion.

Bennett's heart was made of doubt, so unsure was he that he had, on any night, earned that applause, that he was a worthy guy. All he could really do was to tell his buddies, associates, sons and daughters, writers and painters, that the night before (in fact, the whole week before, month before, year before) he had sold out. Every seat. "I couldn't believe it!" he had said to me more than once.

"I don't have to go and see Sinatra," I told him. "You were sufficient."

But he pressed me on, and with theatrical hesitation, I accepted.

Tony's call to Sinatra's secretary, Dorothy Ullman, a heavy-set woman trapped on a planet of requests, had miraculously achieved a first row seat, by the stage in the right corner of the nightclub. I arrived as Sinatra was announced. Out he came, a generation older than Tony Bennett, immaculate in tux, toupe, and the always present orange handkerchief in his breast pocket, at the full bloom of a tulip. No question the mood was different.

There, at the very sight of him, hysteria burst forth, fueled by everything we knew about him, and italicized by the music, the music that had begun before Germany invaded Poland. Tony's welcome had been festive and loving, but not in the least, dangerous.

"I've Got The World on a String" began Sinatra's program. Sinatra sounded not so hot - this song had always told me what shape he might be in. He wandered slowly across the stage, a bit plump, but, it must be said, dangerous. I rested my right hand on the lip of the stage, happy in the safety of what I considered a warm relationship with this guy: drinking in the desert, invited to his home for a screening of Brando's "Missouri Breaks”, and a good long talk in New York, just the two of us in a study at Bennett Cerf's home on East 62nd Street.

In the middle of the Quincy Jones arrangement of "Fly Me to the Moon," Sinatra slid into my territory. I left my hand right there on the stage, confident in our deepening friendship. Perhaps he'd see me and might actually shout, "Hi ya, Jonno," a nickname he'd picked up from a mutual friend.

Alarmingly, after glancing at me, he turned away, his back to all of us on the right side of the room, twirling the long microphone cord as he made his way back from where he'd emerged, never again, after singing but ten songs, did he ever cross the fifty yard line. He finished the night a bit out of breath, but not out of bourbon.

I awoke the sleepy Sally Keeble, and told her the whole story.

A couple of months earlier, having been sent a cassette by a Vegas sound man I'd befriended, I heard a thrilling Sinatra moment, unlike anything he'd ever done. "A little jazz now," he said to his audience. "We're gonna use the quintet." "Lover Come Back To me" gave us a scatting, Ella-like performance, giving each member of the quintet a solo. Never before. A second tape, and there he was again, this time with "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads," a song he'd recorded twice. Only in the 1940s did he sing”Lover Come Back To Me," and as a love ballad that it was at the time. He never recorded it.

During a subsequent Carnegie Hall engagement, I asked my listeners on WNEW to shout out "Lover Come Back To Me" if they were going to any of Sinatra's concerts, thinking that a second version might be even better than the first. They had shouted; had they ever shouted. It never occurred to me that all of the surprising shouting would irritate Sinatra, who had clearly realized from where the shouts had emanated. 

I sadly told all of this to Sally Keeble, who lay sleepily next to me.

"You've got a marble missing, it seems to me," she said, quietly. She had things like that tucked away. Marbles and stuff. Once even a taco.
That is why that to this day, when a Mexican meal is proposed, I think of her.

"Sally Keeble?" I was told when I recently asked a fellow who had known her, "I don’t know, really. Funny. A girl like that. Just disappeared."


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Comments [4]

Aleck Grishkevich from Marina del Rey, CA

Jonathan played these "bootleg" tapes - I won't say all the time - but with some frequency on the old 'NEW-AM, until the Sinatra family,through their attorney, Robert "Bob" Finklestein, put to stop the practice. Some released Sinatra recordings of note - the 1959 Australian concert w/Red Norvo - was circulated as a "bootleg" before being officially released in 1997 - for instance. Another, is a "bootleg" of the recording session in which Sinatra attempts Nelson Riddle's (I think) arrangement - which is very Gershwinesque - of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" - a Sinatra song if ever there was one - but, simply can not make the vocal climb up Riddle Everest of an arrangement after numerous "takes." He finally says something like : Let's put that one aside for a year. These "bootlegs" offer the opportunity of hearing Sinatra at work, reveals his deep knowledge of music and singing technique (although, he didn't read music)and are akin to having been offered the opportunity of watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. There is also the opportunity of listening to some extraordinary singing. The family contends that these "bootlegs" deprived Sinatra himself and the successor copyright owners of royalties rightful due which was the reasoning behind the crackdown. Another argument put forth by them is that oft-times these recordings do not showcase Sinatra at his vocal best. As further proof they offer as evidence that Sinatra himself was a perfectionist - which he was when it came to his art (and dressing and personal hygiene) - and these "bootlegs" are, therefore, an embarrassment; it is the artist who possesses the right to control their art. Well, Jonathan himself effectively refutes that argument in Tony Bennett part III as to these "bootlegs" being an embarrassment as the singing is concerned. An effective strategy as far as building - or extracting - maximum value from an IP (as we refer to these things in The Business) is NOT to extract maximum value from it, i.e. giving content away - as the electronic gaming did at one time (and may still do) - in order to entice the consumer into eventually making a purchase. My contention has always been that the Sinatra family - instead of being Jonathan's adversary as they have been for 40+ years (witness the "High Standards" brouhaha) - should have placed him on their payroll. (My mother, when she first heard Jonathan on 'NEW-AM way back when rhetorically inquired: "What is that guy: On Sinatra payroll?") Frank Sinatra has over the years had no more zealous and intelligent an advocate than Jonathan. Jonathan, especially of late, has also spoken about emotional and intellectual honesty in broadcasting. Jonathan has never struck a false note in either area in the 40+ years he's been my professor of musical knowledge and enriched my life in so many other ways. In many ways, the person I am today has been formed, Then, especially with regard to Sinatra - and by contrast - there's Sid Mark.

Feb. 27 2014 04:27 AM
Bob from New York

Such a good piece Jonathan about the amazing Tony Bennett. I'm looking forward to the conclusion next week! You often say about Ella Fitzgerald on your program "we should have cherished her more". I feel we will be saying the same thing about Tony in years to come. Thanks for sharing, yet again, another of your great stories.

Feb. 26 2014 09:21 AM
Tanya Knoll from Staten Island,NY

QI thoroughly enjoyed part three.Was Tony Bennett that insecure?Was Frank Sinatra sick when he turned his back to the right side of the audience?

Feb. 25 2014 08:26 PM
Martha Magee

Great writing, Jonathan. Priceless stories! Favorite line: " trapped on a planet of requests ".

Sinatra ...whatta POWERHOUSE of danger, charisma, talent and delight!
In a class by himself, no one can argue. The guy was so big he created his OWN planet.

Truth be told though, I trust my heart with Tony. Tony's got his lights turned on. It's probably his insecurity/humility that made him so sensitive as a nicer human and as a singer. I love what he's done with his DUETS project. Nothing short of brilliant.

God Bless You, Tony!

Feb. 25 2014 06:38 PM

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The sounds of Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday and other masters of the American songbook can be heard 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, anywhere in the world.

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