This week with the passing of Tony Bennett we lost one of the greatest and most beloved crooners of our time, and our parents time, and our grandparents time. Born in 1926 in Queens, New York, Bennett began, as so many others, singing as a child in church choirs and later in local cubs. He signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records in 1949 when he was only 23, and his hit single “Because of You” catapulted him to stardom.
But throughout his career, he was flexible, evolutionary, and even revolutionary – he evolved with the times, excelling in various genres like jazz, pop, and standards, and he broke new ground with new takes on old songs and new songs with collaborators. His velvet-smooth voice and impeccable phrasing made him a beloved icon of American music regardless of the music scene of the time. In the 1960s, as the Beatles and Stones were ascending, he experienced a resurgence in popularity with his signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which earned him two Grammy Awards, the first of what eventually became 20 statues.
But what stands him out to modern generations, besides his activism against racism, was his collaborations with current pop stars. His 2011 album Duets II featured collaborations with artists like Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, John Mayer, and others. Collaborating with Tony Bennett became a sought-after honor for recording stars, and the cross-generational partnerships introduced him to a new fan base and showcased his timeless talent in a fresh context.
His performances, live and on television, and his embrace of social media also kept him popular regardless of the age of the audience. Whether it was appearing on The View, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, or Good Morning America, or singing in Vegas, Tony drew record audiences of all ages. And by embracing platforms like Twitter and Instagram to share updates, interact with fans, and promote his music and art, he remained visible and accessible in a rapidly changing digital landscape.
His passing last week at the age of 96 was the end of icon whose velvety voice and classic repertoire resonated with people of all ages. But it was not the end of the era of crooners. Modern crooners like Diana Krall and Michael Bublé, Carole King, Julie London, Bruno Mars, Jason Mraz, Irene Diaz, and Nano continue the tradition of beautiful, often romantic, songs.
This weekend I was treated to a concert in Mexico of singers continuing the Tony Bennett spirit of the crooner – The Three Tenors Vallarta at the Lakeside Little Theater. Three young men – Freddy Otelo from Venezuela, Armando Chakám from Colima, Mexico, and Pedro Islas from Mexico City – sold out two shows and received standing ovations. The majority of the audience was grey-haired and probably remembered Bennet singing ”I Left My Hear in San Francisco” live, but there was a smattering of young people in the audience, both Expat and Mexican. Great singing and great songs appeal universally – which was part of Bennett’s secret.
Like Bennett, The Three Tenors Vallarta did not stick to romantic ballads. They mixed it up with opera (in Italian!), love songs, pop, and even some sing-along and clap-along oldies from the 50’s and 60’s that got people boogieing in the aisles. They did what Bennett did – mixed genres and ages and entertained everyone.
I doubt we will see a Three Tenors of Vallarta collaboration with Lady Gaga or K.D.Lang, but maybe with Nancy Sanchez, Yoss Bones, or Julieta Venegas. If they do, I hope their tour includes the Lakeside Little Theater.
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