by David EvanierReviewed by Paul Paolicelli
Tony Bennett is the longest-running act from the “greatest generation” of American popular singers. His career has spanned seven decades and his popularity is as strong today as it was when he was breaking into the public’s psyche with overly-emotive tunes like “Rags to Riches.” Not only a civil rights supporter, like Sinatra, but also an activist. A man who walked across the bridge in Selma and marched to Birmingham to demand social change. A true mensch in many ways, but also a complete enigma to many who could never really get very close to this man. A man who, like Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich, seemed to take great delight in eviscerating his musicians after concerts, but would turn around and publically praise or financially help the least among them. A man filled with either humility or an incredible lack of self-confidence. A man quite possibly haunted by ghosts.
In his highly researched book, David Evanier tackles the Bennett complexities. It is no easy job. With Bennett, Evanier has to do double-duty since his early experiences were both intense and wide-ranging and, as he matured, he became more and more drawn into himself.
Perhaps the most formative event in Bennett’s life was World War Two. Unlike several other musicians of his generation, he didn’t serve as a performer; he was a dogface on the front lines. He served with the U.S. Seventh Army in southern Germany, mopping up pockets of German resistance in closing days of the war. This action through Bavaria meant the liberation of concentration camps. Tony Bennett, Italian kid from Astoria Heights, saw firsthand at Dachau the ultimate degradation of human beings. Saw firsthand indescribable suffering, the images of which would stay with him for the rest of his life. And like most of his generation, he didn’t talk about it much when he came home.
Bennett tells several interviewers over the years that he started his musical career as a singing waiter and he would have been happy spending his entire life doing just that. Can the man really be that simple? The question infuses Evanier’s work. While there are times when he appears to have none of the ego associated with even lesser talents, one wonders if the humble approach isn’t the equivalent of Dean Martin’s drunk act. But time and again Evanier finds those fellow musicians and professional associates who talk about Bennett’s love of the music and joy of singing. Still, the reader is left wondering…
While not an Italian American, Evanier, a native New Yorker, has a clear and touching appreciation and understanding of the Italian American experience. He goes to great lengths to describe Bennett’s youth and the role of his family in his formation as a man and musician.
Tony Bennett was not exactly an overnight success, but this book makes it clear that his talent was evident early on and that, after a modicum of schooling (he dropped out of technical school to help support the family) and his war experiences, it didn’t take him very long to get down to the business of singing. From that point on he seems to have a miraculous way of bumping into the right people who take to him immediately and help him along. And, as Evanier makes quite clear, Bennett had and maintains an unerring sense of the types of songs he could and should sing. Perhaps alone among the popular singers of his day, Bennett had an innate sense of quality and taste and, while the listener might dispute the interpretation of the song (especially in some of the early dramatic renditions), there’s no “Come On-a My House” tragedy in the entire discography. He remained true throughout his career to his musical and artistic compass. A man who insisted on returning to Jazz after each popular success. A man who has spent his life praising his own personal heroes—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald—and who speaks eloquently and often of their artistry and legacy. It’s clearly the music that drives him.
That is perhaps, Evanier’s greatest accomplishment with this book; he never leaves the music far behind. He describes in great detail the selections at the various times and over the course of countless recording sessions, the personnel (both musical and managerial), the highlights of the recordings and performances. He talks with hundreds of people who performed with Bennett, recorded with him, traveled with him, managed him; even with former lovers. It’s a valuable body of interviews and sourcing material.
Yet, despite all of that testimony, Tony Bennett remains a little unclear. Like his art, Bennet is colorful, dramatic, dissonant, bright, but there’s no photograph here; it’s strictly representational. This is not a deficiency of the biographer, but rather the completely illusive and evasive character that Evanier is dealing with. Evanier amasses an impressive array of first-person testimony that is often contradictory. Even the people who worked the closest with Bennett often say they don’t really know the man.
“All the Things You Are” is the perfect title for this book. Because, in the final analysis, Bennett is an awful lot of things. While no clear photograph emerges of this man and his art, a clear appreciation is the net result. Throughout, Evanier never loses his clearly articulated sense of wonder and love for Tony Bennett’s work.
Paul Paolicelli is the author of two acclaimed books about the Italian American experience: Dances With Luigi—a Barnes&Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and Los Angeles Times best seller—and Under the Southern Sun, a Sons of Italy recommended reading selection. Paolicelli is a veteran broadcast journalist who has managed television news departments and the Washington, D.C., bureau of the NBC television stations. The Rifftides staff is pleased to have him as a contributor.