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Getting Better With Age, Tony Bennett Mastered the American Songbook

Tony Bennett performs with Lady Gaga at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2015. Credit: JBreeschoten / Wikimedia Commons

“Fame comes and goes. Longevity is the thing to aim for,” singer Tony Bennett once said. The beloved American crooner achieved both fame and longevity in a career that spanned more than 70 years before he died at the age of 96 on July 21. 

His song stylings captivated generations of listeners, including a large audience right here in Athens when Bennett performed at The Classic Center downtown in 2010, when the singer was 84. My wife, Joy, and I were there for what turned out to be a virtuoso performance by an ageless and iconic entertainer.

The show opened with songs by Bennett’s songbird daughter, Antonia, who charmed the crowd and did her father proud when she warbled the old tune “Too Marvelous for Words,” written by Georgia’s own songsmith, Johnny Mercer, in 1937. She brought new life to old tunes during her brief set, but the night belonged to Tony, and he did not disappoint the near-capacity crowd that roared and applauded throughout a 90-minute performance that belied the singer’s age.

Bennett’s repertoire of songs was a timeless trip down memory lane with his renditions of tunes by such songwriting greats as Mercer, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Sammy Fain, songsmiths who wrote what Bennett and others have called “The Great American Songbook.” Bennett gave his Athens audience a generous sampling of that songbook during his 2010 performance here, singing more than two dozen tunes that took his local listeners on a musical ride from Broadway to Hollywood.

Backed by a small but talented combo of sidemen on piano, upright bass, guitar and drums, Bennett made the cavernous downtown venue seem like an intimate New York club. Clearly enjoying his work, Bennett crooned and careened his way through such imbedded American tunes as “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “I Got Rhythm,” “The Good Life,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Rags to Riches.”

Love songs are what a Tony Bennett concert is all about, and he sang plenty of them to his Athens audience. I smiled at Joy in the crowded theater as Tony seemed to sing only to us: “Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum/ You came along and everything started to hum.” Bennett was a musical everyman whose Athens concert showed what he meant when he said, “I like what I do, and my ambition is to get better as I get older.”

Though he was a consummate New Yorker, Bennett’s shows always included his signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and his Athens rendition brought appreciative applause from his audience. Country music fans in the crowd were treated to Bennett’s rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart,” a song by country music king Hank Williams that Bennett took to the top of America’s hit parade in the postwar 1950s. Bennett also wowed the crowd when he filled the theater with his treatment of “Fly Me to the Moon.” He belted out the song with just his voice—no amplification, and none was needed for his rich voice to be heard throughout the venue from the floor seats to the balcony.

Tony Bennett was an American treasure who lived a long and eventful life. He served as an infantry soldier in World War II, an experience he called “a front-row seat in hell.” He was haunted by the hell he saw when he and his fellow GIs witnessed the horrors of Nazi concentration camps as the war dragged toward a hard-won Allied victory. After fighting for freedom in Europe, Bennett fought for freedom right here in America, putting his life and career on the line by marching alongside civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, AL, in 1965. 

An accomplished painter as well as a singer, Bennett said that his whole life was “singing and painting.” In his later years Bennett performed with much younger singers like Lady Gaga, a vocalist he called “the Picasso of the entertainment world.” Tony Bennett left a lasting legacy that proved his wise words: “No matter what age you are, there’s a lot of room for learning.”