Emmy hug for ‘One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’? (2024)

Tony Bennett has been part of the pop cultural landscape for over seven decades. The 96-year-old scored his first hit song, “Because of You,” in 1951, the year he made his first TV appearances on a long-forgotten variety series “Star of the Family.” He recorded his signature tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ in 1962. Other hits included “Rags to Riches,” which Martin Scorsese used brilliantly on the soundtrack of his 1990 masterpiece “Goodfellas” and the Oscar-winning “The Shadow of Your Smile” from 1965’s “The Sandpiper.”

Unlike the crooners Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, movie success eluded Bennett. Just check out his film debut in the overstuff 1966 turkey “The Oscar.” His career waned. Rock was hot and Bennett wasn’t. He stopped recording in the late 1970s and was in lot of debt. He turned to drugs but a near death drowning experience in his bathtub changed his life and lifestyle. His son Danny, who became his personal manager, got his dad’s career back on track. Some 15 years after he left Columbia, Bennett re-signed with the label and in 1986 he recorded his first album in a decade, ‘The Art of Excellence.”

Appearances on talk shows, a “The Simpsons” episode and “MTV Unplugged” concert helped Bennett become hip and cool with young audiences. In 2011, his album “Duets II” featured him singing “Lady is a Trump” with Lady Gaga and “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse in her final recording. And in 2014, he and Lady Gaga teamed up for an album of jazz standards, “Cheek to Cheek.” And last year, saw the release of their “Love for Sale” collaboration. Along the way, he’s won 19 Grammy Awards and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2005.

Last year at the age of 94, it was revealed he has suffered from Alzheimer’s since 2016. But that didn’t slow him down. Bennett and Lady Gaga won the Grammy this year for traditional pop vocal album for “Love for Sale.” And his last performance, taped over two nights in August, 2021 at Radio City Music Hall, “One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga,” aired in November on CBS, and Emmy-nominated for Best Variety Special (Pre-Recorded).

Watching the special I took a trip back to 1995 when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times. It was at the pinnacle of his resurgence, a year after his famous “Unplugged” concert, which won the Album of the Year Grammy. He was easy going in his room at a hip Beverly Hills hotel (Tupac Shakur was also staying there relaxing outside in the courtyard). Bennett had recently received along with President Bill Clinton, Betty Ford and Frank Wells, a distinguished service award from Columbia University at a benefit concert for the college’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse that was taped at the Pantages Theater.

The concert “Tony Bennett: Here’s to the Ladies” featured Bennett singing with the likes of Brandy, Liza Minnelli and even Roseanne Barr (thank God she didn’t sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”).Bob Hope was among the star stars who attended the concert. Bennett described Hope as his mentor who showed him the benefit of benefit concerts. “I was performing in Greenwich Village, and he found me and took me up to the Paramount Theatre,” Bennett noted. “I have been performing ever since. I really thought of him through the years as a role model. Bob was always the kind of guy who was easy to talk to. You pointed him in any direction, and he would play a date. So, I adopted his philosophy. I haven’t regretted it either. I believe in just showing up and being gregarious with the public. I personally feel I have to give back. Something good always comes out of it. There’s a balance about it. The audience makes your feel big if they like you.”

Bennett was thrilled that he was bridging the musical generation gap introducing then Generation X-ers to the songs of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. “I was trained to sing for everybody,” he noted. “I used to do seven shows a day at Paramount. You started at 10 a.m. and did an hour-and-25-minute show. It was a great place because the management would tell us, ‘Don’t sing to one group because in the morning you have the teenagers. In the afternoon, the seniors and in the evening, you have your young lovers and married couples. By the end of the day, you sang to everybody. So, you had to find songs that everybody loved, not just one group. It actually made me lean toward quality music. For example, ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

His longtime musical director Ralph Sharon, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, brought “I Left My Heart” to Bennett. “We were performing in Hot Springs, Ark., and he said ‘we’re on our way up to San Francisco and I know that people really love that city. Some friends who write for Billie Holiday wrote this song and if you did it, it will go over big in that town.’ At rehearsal in the Venetian Room at the Fairmount Hotel, people would run up to me and say .‘You have got to record this song.’ I thought it would be a good local hit. I had no idea it would be the signature song that would sustain me right through the years.”

Bennett walked across the hotel room, picked up small green box and sat back down on the sofa. He related he had been signing autographs at Tower Records in San Francisco the day before when a little boy, whom he described having big eyes like the comic strip character Dondi, came up to him with the box. “His mother said, ‘Show it to Mr. Bennett. He made this for you.’” Bennett opened the box and revealed a red stuffed heart made of cloth. “I said to the little boy, ‘I finally found my heart. All of these years I have been looking for it and I finally found it.'”

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Emmy hug for ‘One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’? (2024)
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