Happy 90th birthday to Tony Bennett. What a treasure. He’s the rare singer whose smile you can hear.
Just as you can savor wine by understanding it’s qualities, you can appreciate how Tony Bennett flavors nearly every song with three characteristics: a whisper, a laugh and an exclamation point.
Take “Steppin’ Out” from his 1994 Unplugged performance on MTV. Listen and notice:
The first verse, his whisper. His warm humor at :58. His exclamation points at 1:20, 2:00 and 2:59. It’s one of the best things in life, a singer who makes every song a conversation.
Tony Bennett said he practiced months before he could get “right” how to sing “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Here he sings it on a 1966 TV show, bringing to it the full, thoughtful emotion it deserves.
Singers today who blast out of the gate belting to the rafters could learn crescendo-building by studying Tony’s slow ascent on any version “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
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The Unplugged clip above illustrates what’s great best about live jazz — the interaction between musicians. One talks while the others listen. Take “When Lights Are Low.” Listen to the whispers, the laughs, the exclamation points — plus a delicate dance between voice and string…voice and keys…voice and skins.
So much care is put into every note of this song. It seems effortless, which defines most of Tony Bennett’s work, and is the mark of a great pro.
That’s why this World War II veteran is still on top of his game. Happy 90th birthday, Tony Bennett.
Mark Morelli is a New York Times Bestseller reader.