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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 clichd 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.

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.