Tony Bennett has accepted the boundaries of his universe.
In the last decades of his life, the period of his greatest success, he never tried to make a Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash-style album of recent pop and rock hits tailored to his voice. Instead, he transported the contemporary artists he worked with, especially Lady Gaga, into his favorite musical arena: Great American Songbook classics by Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, and many more. Without seeing the cover, you wouldn’t even know his ‘MTV Unplugged’ album was an ‘MTV Unplugged’ album just by hearing it. His latest studio album, “The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern,” speaks to his appreciation for the art of songwriting embodied by the entire Great American Songbook era and how a singer can work in dialogue with that songwriter even decades after their deaths to create meaning.
As his collaborator Bill Charlap said in a stunning CNN interview this weekend about Bennett, who died Friday at the age of 96, the singer, whose other great artistic love was painting, brought a painterly sensibility to his songwriting: nuanced every word he sang with the meaning he intended, calibrating his enunciations to produce just the tone and feeling he desired, as if applying careful brushstrokes.
Just like any painter, what Bennett chose not to paint was essential in defining his artistic ambitions and their limits. This meant that, unlike many other singers, an acting career was something he had decided not to aspire to. He had bit parts in ‘The Danny Thomas Show’ and ’77 Sunset Strip’, but a bad experience in his feature film debut, ‘The Oscar’, made him give up acting altogether. He concentrated instead on where he could have absolute mastery. There is a possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Chopin in which the Polish composer of small-scale piano works said, “My kingdom is quite small, but within it I truly am king.” That was Bennett. His artistry has been scaled down just as it needed to be scaled down.
That doesn’t mean Bennett hasn’t had an impact on the films, though. Indeed, his voice helps fuel one of the greatest moments in American cinema. “As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster,” says Henry Hill of Ray Liotta after he takes part in a grisly murder at the beginning of “Goodfellas.” He slams the trunk of his car to hide the body from view and then the trumpets of orchestra leader Percy Faith’s big band ignite a blast of Pax Americana, setting Bennett’s vocals: “I know I’d go from rags to riches,” he sings. “If I only said you care / And even though my pocket might be empty / I’d be a millionaire.” The credits for Saul Bass roll across the screen and, quickly, we see the deep green iris of young Henry Hill as he looks out his bedroom window imagining what his life as a gangster might be like.
Bennett’s recording of “Rags to Riches,” written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, was already 37 years old when it began with “Goodfellas” to kick off this legendary flashback montage showing how Hill came to be. His recording is filled with exactly the bravado and desire that define Hill’s own character. It wasn’t the first time Bennett’s music had been used in a film for particular dramatic effect: Cybill Shepherd’s character in “The Last Picture Show”, despite living in a Texas town, doesn’t hear Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” but Bennett’s cover of that song – director Peter Bogdanovich chose Bennett’s version to show how she aspires to a more urban life outside of her rustic surroundings. Bennett always oozed sophistication, yes, but in both “The Last Picture Show” and “Goodfellas,” her voice was more than that: it was the sound of American aspiration itself.
Of course, the “Goodfellas” version of American aspiration is its dark side. And Bennett himself, though photographed with Scorsese over the years, including at a 2004 Tribeca Film Festival panel on music in Scorsese’s films, expressed that he “didn’t like” being associated with “Goodfellas.”
In a 2015 Vulture interview, Bennett said of the association: “I didn’t like it. I know how good the actors and the story were, but that’s not exact because every nationality has an underworld. It’s not just the Italians. The British, the Germans, the Irish – there is an underworld in the whole universe. They are doing bad things. The absurdity of that strong prejudice resulting from that film…”
Certainly, many Italian-Americans have expressed frustration with “Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” and other Mafia films for linking their diaspora to crime. For Bennett, it must have carried a particular charge when you consider this: to achieve mainstream musical success he took on the name Tony Bennett, rather than attempting a career under his birth name Anthony Benedetto, the name on his dog tags when he helped liberate a Dachau subcamp in 1945 and, as he wrote in his autobiography, “he saw things no human being should ever see”. In no way had Bennett ever tried to hide his Italian-American heritage, and since he had achieved number one hits in the 1950s, the Italian-American community welcomed him with enthusiasm. But having to change his name showed the kind of effort Italian-Americans had to make to “fit in”—and now, decades later, he’s been associated with a movie about the Mafia.
That discomfort with “Goodfellas” is entirely understandable, but “Rags to Riches” speaks a little about Bennett’s journey. A seven-decade career in the public eye is bound to have its ups and downs, but Bennett’s were unusually pronounced: By the late 1960s, by which time his interpretive, unadorned singsong style had become unfashionable, he fell on hard times. In 1970, he actually recorded an album of pop/rock covers, “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!” which Time magazine compared to William Shatner’s infamous cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Bennett said he vomited before the initial recording session. In the 1970s he also went without a record deal for a time, and struggled with a cocaine addiction that led to a near-fatal overdose in 1979.
In 1986, Bennett began his comeback simply trying to be nothing but himself, and that comeback was in full swing when “Goodfellas” featured him to such emotional effect. Of the 20 Grammy Awards he has won during his career, 18 have been won since 1993. A rags-to-riches story.