Tony Bennett signs deal with Stevie Wonder

by Howard Reich

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

26 August 2009


CHICAGO — He turned 83 earlier this month and doesn’t have a lot left to prove.

Yet Tony Bennett just signed a deal to record with Stevie Wonder, he says, and on Friday he will open a two-night engagement at the Ravinia Festival — a venue he has played (and packed) nearly every year since 1984.

The man clearly refuses to slow down, harboring particular en­thusiasm for the forthcoming collaboration with Wonder.

“It will be a jazz album — I’m looking forward to it, I love him,” says Bennett, adding that the idea grew out of Bennett’s collaboration with Wonder on one track of Bennett’s 2006 CD, “Duets: An American Classic.”

Wonder partnered with Bennett on “For Once in My Life,” a cut that won a Grammy Award for best pop collaboration with vocals (the CD also won for best traditional pop vocal album). But Wonder, at first, wasn’t entirely satisfied.

“He was playing the piano and he said, ‘I’ve got to get good enough to do a piano album,’” recalls Bennett.

“And I said, ‘What do you mean? You sound magnificent.’”

Thus began plans to expand their collaboration, says Bennett.

But it wasn’t just music that drew Bennett to Wonder.

“He’s got a wonderful philosophy about life,” says Bennett. “Listen to his lyrics — he’s a real humanist.”

The same could be said of Bennett, whose buoyancy in up-tempo tunes and palpable ardor in ballads long ago made him one of the most emotionally direct American pop stars of his era. If Frank Sinatra exuded a (richly deserved) air of regality, Bennett struck a more populist stance, sweating to reach his audience and letting it show.

What’s remarkable is that the man not only continues to hustle but somehow has preserved his instrument, his stamina, his lung power, his drive.

Those who complain of cragginess in his voice forget that it always was more burlap than silk, more pugilist than peacemaker.

And Bennett has toiled to preserve it.

“When I was younger, I did a lot of foolish stuff, and I realized it wasn’t right,” says Bennett, who learned a tough lesson from one of comedian Lenny Bruce’s managers.

Bruce famously had succumbed to various vices. “And the manager said, ‘He sinned against his talent,’” remembers Bennett.

“That one sentence changed my life. I said, ‘Drop everything, stop being foolish, eat good foods ... I stay in good shape. I sleep well at night. I don’t have any tricks going on.”

Except those he unreels onstage, when he somehow holds a note past the breaking point or swings a rhythm with visceral force.

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