When a famous person dies, we often hear how their passing marks the end of an era. Frankly, much of that sentiment strikes me as hyperbole, a way of trying to turn an obituary into a larger statement of some kind.
But trust me on this one: Tony Bennett’s passing truly is the end of an era.
Bennett, who died on Friday in his Manhattan home at the age of 96, leaves a remarkable legacy. Dozens of albums. A frenetic touring schedule well into his later life. And perhaps most remarkable of all: an ability to span generations in terms of his appeal. It’s hard to imagine any nonagenarian entertainer — or even any entertainer past the age of 60 — who could partner with Lady Gaga and make it seem like more than a publicity stunt.
Still, what’s significant about Bennett’s passing is more about those who have gone before him. Pretty much all of the Golden Age crooners — Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Vic Damone, Bing Crosby and so many other names — are no longer with us. Bennett was the last to carry the torch — and though we know he couldn’t hold it forever, we cherished the idea it was still being held.
Also read: RIP Tony Bennett: World mourns ‘one of the great voices of all time’ silenced
Why? Because these vocalists symbolized an apex in American music.
Let’s begin with the songs they sang — works of remarkable sophistication, wit and even pathos that were somehow still very much in a Top 40 vein. The lyrics alone tell you all you need to know. Consider the memorable opening to Bennett’s big hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” a song penned by the lesser-known team of George Cory and Douglas Cross.
The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome is of another day
I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan
I’m going home to my city by the Bay
In these four lines, you have the perfect setup to that memorable chorus (“I left my heart…”). The rhymes are easy and unforced. The sentiment is pointedly clear. In short, not a word is wasted. And the melody? It’s there to gently lift those lyrics into the heavens
Then, there’s the vocalist’s role. It’s often been said of Sinatra — yes, Bennett’s rival — that he didn’t sing his songs so much as he acted them out, like he was the lead character in a three-minute musical. But I’d argue the same was pretty much true of all the Golden Age crooners. There was a natural beauty to their voices and there was a jazz-inflected way they sang, but it was all in service to treating a song as a soliloquy.
Listen — I mean truly listen — to how Bennett sings “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and it becomes crushingly clear. He’s not just crooning. He’s telling a story.
Do we have any singers today who come close to hitting that mark? True, there are latter-day crooners — count me as a big fan of Michael Bublé — but they’re not exactly in the pop mainstream. The Tony Bennetts of this world — at least in their prime — were very much pop icons.
At the same time, I don’t want to make this one of those generational arguments: There’s great pop music being made today, as there is in just about every era. But I’d argue it’s a very different kind of music. Rhythm often takes precedence over melody. And vocalists often resort to tricks of various kinds — sliding around notes, using electronic enhancements or just plain singing to the top of their lungs — to wow an audience.
Not Tony Bennett and his brethren. They placed faith in their natural instruments and they let the songs speak for themselves. The results were something magical — and something that will be surely missed. Like I say, it’s the end of an era.