Just before launching into a series of four standing ovation-inspiring encores at his capacity concert at the Fox Theatre Friday night, Tony Bennett observed with a laugh: “I guess you can tell by now, I just sing old songs!” The 85-year-old icon’s legion of fans instantly applauded the singer’s Great American Songbook set selection. With his peers, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan and pal Rosemary Clooney all gone now, Bennett is keeping the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin alive for his diverse audience, a mix of young and old fans.
Bennett knows the material he performs is timeless as he demonstrated by dusting off the Gershwin brothers’ 1934 chestnut “Who Cares?” “It’s probably one of the most contemporary songs out there about what’s happening in the world right now,” Bennett explained. He got a laugh as he began the song’s opening stanza: “Let it rain and thunder, let a million firms go under/I am not concerned with, stocks and bonds I’ve been burned with!”
Attempting to explain the Ted Mack Amateur Hour program where he got his big break when he competed with Clooney during the infancy of television, Bennett told the youngsters in the audience: “Rosie and I were the first American Idols!” The singer then conceded that George Clooney’s aunt beat him in the competition by singing “Golden Earrings.”
As always, Bennett’s quartet consisted of musical monsters, including Emmy-winning composer and pianist Lee Musiker, bassist Marshall Woods, guitarist Gray Sargent and iconic Count Basie drummer Harold Jones (calling Jones “Count Basie’s favorite drummer,” Jones notably appeared with Bennett on the 2008 album Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Big Band’s A Swingin’ Christmas.
Daughter Antonia (who opened the show for her 15-time Grammy winning dad) joined Bennett on stage for a wistful rendition of Stephen Sondheim‘s “Old Friends” from the Broadway musical “Merrily We Roll Along.” Introducing his hit version of the Hank Williams country standard “Cold, Cold Heart,” Bennett recalled the behind-the-scenes recording negotiations with his former Columbia Records producer and taskmaster Mitch Miller. “I told him, ‘I live in New York and this is a country song,'” Bennett reflected. “Mitch told me, ‘You’re going to sing this song if I have to tie you to a tree!’ So, Mitch tied me to a tree and we ended up with the first million-selling country song out of the deal!”
Not everyone was pleased with Bennett’s big hit record, however. Bennett shared with the audience the details of a phone call he received shortly after “Cold, Cold Heart” hit the charts. Remembering Hank Wiliams’ twang on the other end of the phone, the singer confided the country star had one question for him: “Tony, what’s the idea of ruining my song?!”