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Tony Bennett, 3 August 1926 – 21 July 2023

What can you say about Tony Bennett?

On what would have been his 97th birthday, a short reminisce.

The last of the great saloon singers of the 20th century, I was lucky enough to catch Tony Bennett perform four times, and met him three times in London in the late 1990s: ever the pro, the crooner was on heavy on the promo trail plugging the hell out of The Essential Tony Bennett (A Retrospective) in the post-Sinatra and pre-Gaga world. 

Unlike his friend and mentor Ol’ Blue Eyes, Bennett would interpret a song rather than embody it. If his singing and public life lacked the high drama of Sinatra’s, Bennett appealed with an easy, courtly manner and an uncommonly rich and durable voice – “A tenor who sings like a baritone,” he called himself – that made him a master of caressing a ballad or brightening an up-tempo number.

He carried on performing around 200 concerts a year until just a few years ago. Indeed, until the week he died TB was the only octogenarian I ever willingly witnessed in concert.

Tom Jones was 83 when we caught him at the Nice Jazz Festival in July, just two days before the news of his passing (Tony’s, not Tom’s), and, alas a spring chicken compared to the time I last went to see a then 88 year-old Tony Bennett, owning the stage of the iTunes Festival at London’s Roundhouse in 2014. The legendary icon of American popular music was in full swing, showing how global audiences have depended on him to deliver consistent, top-notch performances, which spanned a career of over 70 years.

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Bennett often said his lifelong ambition was to create “a hit catalogue rather than hit records” Well, he inadvertently created not only a monument to his catalogue but to the great city that was the subject of his signature song, I Left My Heart In San Francisco.

This seems indubitably doubly poignant now.

In March 2019, I was in California to help find a venue for a memorial dinner celebrating the life of my aunt Julia.

She had sadly passed the month before – a Bay Area resident whose heart, like the song, was very much in San Fran in her final years, which was fitting when one of SF’s sister cities is where her mother/my gran hailed from, Thessaloniki in Greece.

The Fairmont was one such possible venue for the celebration. Though we went elsewhere, it was lovely to see something had changed since I first visited the hotel five years earlier.

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The venue where Tony Bennett first performed I Left My Heart In San Francisco had made the most of their connection to the twilight crooner by commissioning an 8-foot tall bronze statue in his honour, and in 2016 it, along with the 22nd floor Tony Bennett Suite, was erected in a prime spot atop the famed Nob Hill location.

No rain, no flowers, right?

Truly the last of the great crooners, and a warm and genial whippersnapper to boot. Talking of old boots, I do hope Madonna’s buttshock didn’t hasten his demise. The sight of that is enough to finish anyone off.

Steve Pafford

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