The Three Lives of Tony Bennett
In 1972, Tony Bennett hit the skids. For two decades he had been one of Columbia Records’s best-selling artists, but when rock came to dominate the popular-music scene, the label’s executives pushed him to start recording watered-down cover versions of top-40 hits instead of the standards that had made him a household name. He angrily canceled his contract and made a financially devastating attempt to launch a record label of his own. Demoralized by the downturn in his career, Bennett developed a drug habit and, though he continued to sing in public, released no albums between 1977 and 1986.
Bennett was by no means the only pop musician of his generation to be thrown off balance by the coming of rock. But instead of retreating into dignified obscurity, he stopped using drugs, resumed his recording career, and made the kind of comeback that is the stuff of Hollywood biopics. Today his fans include listeners whose parents had not yet been born when he cut his first single in 1950. Amazingly, he brought off this feat without altering or compromising his style in any way. At 85, Bennett continues to sing the songs of the 1920s and 30s the way he did in the 50s and 60s. All that has changed is his audience.
About the Author
Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about original-cast albums in the last issue. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, opened last month in Orlando, Florida.