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But taking on even an established classic becomes a heavy-duty project for Bennett. Prior to recording "The Shadow of Your Smile" in 1965, Bennett spent the entire summer custom-designing a version worthy of presenting as his own. Here, as on a hundred other songs, the well-honed Bennett is able to disguise his hard work with the same nonchalance that the movie Elvis demonstrated in churning out an on-the-spot soundtrack on a borrowed guitar.
A lot of Bennett's musical contemporaries believe he very well may have been born with his gift--that to talk of the music is to talk of the man. Buddy Rich, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand have praised Bennett as a person when exalting him as the best of singers. Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie noted, "His philosophy of life is so basic that the moment he opens his mouth to sing you know exactly what he is--a prince. I really feel for that guy."
Even the matchless Duke Ellington, no less a prince himself, was taken by Bennett's deference to the music. He recalled when Bennett brought bands to work with him, he billed their names over his own. "This is unheard of," Ellington said.
Twenty years ago, while taping a TV special, the slow-hand song man put aside the music long enough to make an uncharacteristic self-comment. "What I'm hoping for is something like what happened on the Billie Holiday records, where her songs were so believable because she lived them."
In some ways, he's done Holiday one better. Her tragic life of drugs and racist attacks may have left her as capable of singing the blues as breathing, but it leaves us nonjunkie, white folk watching her from the balcony, mostly unable to relate. But Tony Bennett has no particular ax to grind or sordid lifestyle to be embodied in song. Whether singing of lost love or the hots-to-come, he's just the quintessential nice guy. We relate because, underneath, we like to think we are, too.
Jazz saxman Gerry Mulligan is another musical giant snagged by the Everyman in Bennett. "Many times, I like people and I don't know why. But I know why I like Tony. He's an emotional singer; and without really wringing it out, he gets the feeling out of a song that's in it. And he's himself at all times; he sings Tony. That's exactly what better musicians try to do."
The praise sometimes borders on near-religious. Jazz flutist Herbie Mann believes Bennett embodies "truth." Bennett's audiences can't help but be "spiritually affected," said the president of the Berklee College of Music when presenting Bennett with an honorary degree--the first ever given by the prestigious school to a singer.
"What's so astounding about Bennett is his consistent sincerity," said music writer Bruce Blackadar. "There's not a false note in his show, no snappy one-liners to loosen up the audience. He's a master of economy; he has stripped away every frill and presents only the gold."
The Toronto Star pinpointed his sleek ways when it referred to Bennett as "the Mercedes of classical pop singers." But the vocalist's greatest accolade has come from his competition, the man whose popularity as a saloon singer has always overshadowed his own.
Bennett has long allowed his publicist to present him as "Frank Sinatra's favorite singer." On the one hand a humble tip of the Bennett hat to the king of crooners, the mantle also serves as validation that Ol' Blue Eyes really handed over the crown years back when he found a gravel driveway replacing his voice and began singing something stupid with family members.
Unlike Sinatra's, Bennett's voice is as strong today as ever. The man seems to be a musical Dorian Gray in reverse--growing more handsome through the years as his voice matures into the amber tones of a singer built of the best oak. Time may have forgotten him, but he's forgotten time, too. Several decades' worth of failed and failing love warblers must find themselves jealous as hell of his staying power.
"Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business," Sinatra once said in a rare candid moment, "the best exponent of a song. "He's the singer who gets across what the composer had in mind, and probably a little more.