I’ve already begun celebrating Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday, which is Wednesday. In recent weeks, hardly a day has gone by without me pulling one of my nearly two dozen Bennett CDs off the shelf and playing it in my car or den. The music has endured.
Tony’s singing made its way into my life in an unusual way. I am a rock ’n’ roll guy, but I’m also a big fan of Johnny Carson. Johnny had Tony on his “Tonight Show” countless times back when I was in my teens and 20s. While I may have been a rock fan, I gave Tony another look. If Johnny liked his music, I reasoned there must be something to it. I was a Bennett fan long before it was fashionable.
Through the years, music formats changed, but Tony never really changed. Sticking to popular tunes better known as the Great American Songbook, he kept plugging along.
While fans around the world will remember him for the song about San Francisco, the central San Joaquin Valley and the city of Fresno played a small, yet significant, role in Bennett’s legacy.
My wife and I saw Tony perform in Fresno in 2004. I got in line as soon as the box office opened on the first day of ticket sales. We had great seats. His concert at the Saroyan Theatre sold out. Our tickets put us about 10 rows from the stage. I’ll never forget it.
I recognized every song but one. That particular composition, “All for You,” he explained to the audience, was a new song in which he tried his hand at writing lyrics. He performed it for the very first time on stage that night in Fresno. In his second autobiography, “Life is a Gift,” Bennett wrote of singing the song to the Fresno audience: “I was bowled over by their reaction. They went crazy for it.”
The words to “All for You” were the only song lyrics he ever composed. In that same autobiography, Bennett wrote, “I guess from interpreting songs for so many years, I know to stay away from trite material, and I thought it came out pretty well.” The song was included in a CD released in 2004.
I’d like to think I was among those who “went crazy for it” that October night 12 years ago in Fresno. There was resounding applause when he performed that song. I know I was the most enthusiastic fan in the theater as he performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Thanks to his son Danny, who became his manager in the late 1980s, Tony Bennett’s career enjoyed a revival among his longstanding fans. There was new interest from younger audiences, as well. He performed with contemporary artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, k.d. lang,and Elvis Costello. In recent years, he’s released duet albums with dozens of artists such as Lady Gaga who have jumped at the opportunity to perform with him.
Elvis Presley admired his style. Frank Sinatra called him his favorite singer. It has been a remarkable career for a singer whose first records were made in the early 1950s.
So as Tony Bennett reaches that next life milestone, I wish him a very happy birthday. I can only hope he comes back to the Saroyan or to any Valley venue for at least one more visit.
Steve Newvine and his wife reside in Merced, where he manages government partnerships for a California utility company. He lived in Fresno from 2004-06. He’s written seven books, including “9 From 99, Experiences in California’s Central Valley.”