Bennett, Done That

Who woulda thunk it? Tony Bennett, he of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" fame, and a fave of beehive-era moms and pops everywhere, flies back to the top on a ticket booked and paid for by a ragtag legion of nihilists relentlessly known as Generation X.

This is no joke, and it's not a test. It's a true-blue slice of American pie. The kind of fable Hollywood loves. A fairy tale, where, with a little marketing help from his friends, the good guy wins, again. And he wins big.

Let's backtrack a bit to the time before the lull became the storm that's currently engulfed us. The year is 1949, and Anthony Dominick Benedetto, then known as Joe Bari, is appearing in a Pearl Bailey revue at the old Greenwich Village Inn. Bob Hope hears the young Joe and invites him to sing at the Paramount. Problem is, that rascally Mr. Hope didn't particularly like his new protege's stage name. So, after learning that the real moniker was far too long for the marquee, the man called Hope (originally Leslie Townes Hope, mind you) thought for a moment and "Tony Bennett" was born.

That was indeed the start of something big. A year later an audition with Mitch Miller for Columbia Records begat Bennett's first hit, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," which put him on the Cleveland-Philly-Buffalo saloon circuit. It wasn't quite N.Y. or L.A., but it was a start. And after all, the one-time serenading waiter was singing for his supper .

For the next decade or so, Bennett maintained a steady regimen of touring and recording, crooning his way back and forth across the country with uncommon diligence, living by a dictum passed on to him by his pal, the master himself, Frank Sinatra: "Don't do any tricks or novelty songs just to get a hit. And don't compromise." Believe it or not, but "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is not a novelty song.

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Fitting then that Bennett would mark his return with a collection dedicated to the one whose wisdom had guided him all these years. Flash forward to 1989: Bennett's on the verge of throwing in the towel. Sony had just scarfed up Columbia and installed a team of big shots led by the notorious Tommy Mottola (the svengali/husband behind Mariah Carey) and a no-nonsense exec named Don Ienner, who, unbelievable as it may sound, happened to be sympathetic to the elder songman's plight. "Bring me a concept. Something I can sell," said the Record Man, in characteristic moneyspeak.

A month later, Bennett had it. Something timely, classic, cool-sounding and, best of all, infinitely marketable. Perfectly Frank. Needless to say, Ienner flipped. And Bennett was back on his way into the households of America.

Behind every successful man there's a good marketing strategy, especially with Bennett. In this case it is his son Danny, chronologically and philosophically closer to the Xers himself, who's been pulling the strings that make cash registers ring. And he does it with the sound and the fury of one who was raised with a remote in one hand and a prospectus in the other.

Danny boy took his Pop's career in hand in 1979, and set it on a course that involved a show here, a show there, steady, yes, but nothing earth-shattering. And, saddest of all, no new releases.

Then, in 1986, renewing his ties with Columbia, Bennett let slip The Art of Excellence, a smooth collection of classics suited perfectly to that crushed-velvet voice of his. The album garnered a chorus of critical approval and inspired Bennett, and Columbia, to get back to business. What followed was a succession of eminently arranged and wondrously rendered recordings: Bennett/Berlin (to mark the composer's 100th birth anniversary), the Grammy-nominated Astoria: Portrait of the Artist (in honor of his old neighborhood in Queens), and Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett (a four-CD box set of vintage Bennett from the Columbia vaults). But good reviews don't pay the rent, and Bennett was on the edge until Perfectly Frank put everything in place.

Sometimes things do happen with just a snap of a swinger's fingers, and Perfectly Frank was that snap. The collection, dedicated, of course, to Bennett's "best friend, professionally as well as personally," won the crooner his first Grammy in more than 30 years and went gold, two somethings Bennett hadn't accomplished since "San Francisco" back in '62.

And then the hip really hit the fans.
An awards-presentation pairing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on MTV A where the Peppers sported suits and Sir Tony donned a black T-shirt and jeans A led to a 1993 Alternative Nationesque series of Christmas concerts that put the classicist on the same bill as New Coke acts such as Billy Idol, Juliana Hatfield, Belly, and Porno for Pyros. Bolstered by a guest slot on The Simpsons (Bennett was the first "name" to play himself on the Fox toonfest), everything started coming up Tony. Scorsese used his rendition of "Rags to Riches" over the opening sequence of Goodfellas; Weiden & Kennedy put him in a Nike commercial; WordPerfect sponsored his tour; Annie Leibovitz, the ultimate rock photog, shot his covers; and MTV threw him into their precious Buzz Bin, then had him Unplugged and packaged that, too.

You can even catch the cat in a cameo in Eric Bogosian's latest stage-rant, Suburbia, after one of the characters says, "Like, imagine the inside of a 7-Eleven, but with music. I'll put on Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Nine Inch Nails, Tony Bennett." The folks would be so happy.

The son certainly is, shining in his father's latest moment. Danny Bennett might want us to believe that all this hype was the result of a carefully orchestrated ten-year marketing campaign, though it's more likely the kid stumbled upon the mark. Whatever the case, his efforts did compel Advertising Age to recently name him one of the 100 best marketers of the year.

But like his father, Danny Bennett seemed to work the angles almost effortlessly, selling cool by the pound with the greatest of ease, which, in this desperate age of anti-desperation, is the key to any success. That, and having something to sell in the first place. Never let 'em see you sweat, runs the advertising-business adage. Give 'em a product they can trust, runs another. And the Bennetts adhere to both like pros.

Tony Bennett performs tonight (Thursday) at 8:00 at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 673-7300. Tickets cost $27.50 and $32.50.

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