It's an unfortunate fact that crooners and saloon singers tend to age into a fine whine. Frank Sinatra has become the grumpy, croaking godfather; Wayne Newton the willing Vegas parody; Andy Williams and Robert Goulet the desperate guests on third-rate daytime talk shows. Only Tony Bennett stands as an undated, class pop singer of the old school. He's done something terribly right to last this long.

Not that it's easy to pinpoint at first listen. But go ahead, unbox your uncle's scratchy stack of LPs the next time he's out in the yard inspecting the sprinkler system. Pull out the Bennett albums he'll have stuck in between the Dean Martin and Perry Como trash. Thirty seconds into Tony's version of "Blue Velvet" or "Fly Me to the Moon" and you'll agree that it's physically impossible to be any more relaxed with a song than Bennett is. There's something unique about his pacing that keeps him from having to share the same elevator that his peers' music plays in.

Listen long enough and you'll discover the secret. Tony Bennett is the consummate gentleman with a tune: always freeing the music from the smarmy chains of show biz and giving every number the time it needs to spread its love-song legs. The Italian singer is incredibly skilled at dropping the pace of a tune until it nearly topples, giving equal time to every comma and period in a lyric. The man has built his musical career on being in no hurry. He knows that, like Clint Eastwood silently chewing on a cigar and taking forever before finally strutting his stuff, stretching out makes for great tension. Don't be fooled by the laid-back cover photo of last year's boxed set, Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett. The four-CD collection is a tribute to unnerving timing. Bennett revels in the fact that he knows how to elongate the pulse of "The Gentle Rain" to where it would barely register on an EKG. Flashing that crowd-pleasing grin on the cover, the singer presents himself as the suave juggler who wants the pins to fall entirely too close to the ground before that last-second save. Bennett has shared his four decades of singing with a lot of bad jugglers. Most of the other post-big-band singers spent the Sixties and Seventies vulture-eyeing the Top 40 charts for the newest sugar-rich fodder. Bennett's lounge-lizard contemporaries regularly whipped out easy-listening music washed down with tepid string arrangements and assembly-line readings. The result, not surprisingly, was unremarkable music and washed-up careers. Perry Como and Dean Martin had their season in the Sun Cities of America, but have left a legacy as empty as last month's Geritol bottle. No orchestral versions of "Green Tambourine" for Bennett. Mr. Tony may have recorded a few goofy tunes, but he's always tended to embrace the tried-and-true output of upper-crust songwriters like Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mandel. From the beginning, the New York-born singer used his slow-as-snails approach to dissect the best composers in the manner of a college poetry professor. While Vic Damone and Andy Williams pumped out records doomed to be as dated as yesterday's newspaper, Bennett built up a respectable catalogue of more than 80 albums with Columbia Records. Many still hold up well enough to merit the company's now rereleasing them on CD--quite an achievement considering the fickleness of the reissue market. Gone forever are the days of the clichād Robert Goulet album covers showing young blondes in pedal pushers frolicking on the beach. Once again we are given reissues of those early Bennett records, with his omnipresent close-up grin on every sleeve seeming to say, "What, me hurry?"

Another recent Bennett product, the full-length concert video Watch What Happens, shows just how grateful the 65-year-old singer is for having a handful of American songwriting laureates whose verse he'll voice. In this two-hour paean to the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, hardly a song goes by without Bennett's sidestepping the applause and spotlighting the songwriter instead.

There has always been a lot of applause for Anthony Dominick Benedetto to sidestep. Way back in 1955, 53,000 fans descended on New York's Philharmonic Hall to hear him wrap himself around what he had sifted out as the best in American music. His was a different Top 40, one of his own making that would pull from composers of the Twenties and Thirties as readily as a Broadway number of the day. It had been a priority of his since Bob Hope (who suggested the shortened name) first invited the unknown vocalist to come onstage and sing "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" five years earlier. When the song garnered a recording contract and a hit, Bennett knew all future boulevards had better be named by top-drawer songwriters.

Bennett has never settled for dragging any old tramp song home to his audience. "I look at hundreds of songs before I choose one," he told the British press in the late Sixties. "I've got to love it before I sing it or record it."

No small feat considering the fact that for years Bennett has been the target of songwriters from all over the world, resulting in the singer's being sent an average of 1,000 songs a month for his potential use. He continues to listen to most of them.

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