Tuesday, April 8, 2014
"I could have retired fifteen years ago but here I am still going at it," says Tony Bennett. At 87, the legendary vocalist has certainly earned the right to stay home and spend time with his seventeen Grammy Awards and a roomful of hit records that come in shades of triple platinum and certified gold. Nevertheless Bennett prefers to keep looking forward. "I'm 87 and believe me, I feel like I'm just starting out and learning so many new things," says Bennett, who has now been performing for seven decades. He's worked with all of the greats - from Sinatra to Streisand, Garland to Gaga. He's hit the top of the charts dozens of times and did so while fully clothed and without ever once using a wrecking ball as a means of transportation.
After racking up honors from the Kennedy Center, the United Nations and Billboard, most performers would be content to spend their days hitting the links at Pebble Beach but not Bennett, who is currently in rehearsals for his Waterfront Concerts appearance at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on April 19th. Bennett says that the program will include many of his favorite standards. And is it any wonder that one of our country's most gifted singers would find inspiration in the Great American Songbook?
"In America, we're very privileged to have produced this extraordinary group of composers - George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and of course, Cole Porter, who was better than all of them," Bennett says. "All of these artists were part of a great renaissance period in music...You just swoon when you hear songs like "Embraceable You" or "Night and Day." These songs don't sound old to me in any way. In fact, after years of performing these songs, I'm completely convinced that in about fifty years, they'll be called 'America's Classical Music' and not just referred to as 'light entertainment.'"
Several of the songs Bennett performs in concert are featured on his new Sony Legacy compilation, "The Classics." This career-spanning anthology allows the listener to hear Bennett transition from a youthful, full-bodied belter to a more mature and nuanced interpreter. The collection kicks off with his 1951 breakout hit, "Because of You," and concludes with "Steppin' Out With My Baby," his 2012 duet with Christina Aguilera. Listening to the various tracks, its easy to see why record executives determined early on that Bennett had "undeniable crossover appeal." After all, it's a rare performer who can claim both AARP members and Phi Kappa Sigma members as part of their fan base.
Bennett believes that his widespread and enduring popularity is at least partially attributable to some advice he received at the beginning of his career. "When I was at the American Theatre Wing, I had this wonderful vocal coach, Mimi Speer, and she gave me some terrific advice," recalls Bennett. She said, 'Don't imitate other singers because you'll just end up in the chorus if you do that...You always have to remember to be yourself.'"
After signing with Columbia Records in 1950, Bennett says that he never picked songs based on their Top 40 prospects. "I never tried to get a hit song. I just tried to find intelligent songs that were built right musically and that have beautiful lyrics," says Bennett. "I was taught at the American Theatre Wing to never compromise and to sing quality all of the time. If you find a song that's well written, then you try to record the definitive version of that song. You know, it's a lot like fishing. Some days you can catch a whole barrel of good fish and other days, you can't get any of them. But you go for it anyway and you give it your best shot."
When it was released as a single in 1962, "Once Upon a Time" was expected to be Bennett's next chart topper but disc jockeys preferred the song that had been relegated to the "B' side. Bennett's wistful longing "to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars" turned "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" into a career milestone. "I had a musical director, Ralph Sharon and he found that song for me," Bennett remembers. "He had some friends that wrote that song and one day when we were trying different tunes out, he just said to me, 'How about this one?' We had no idea that it was going to go through the roof...I can't think of a better signature song to be associated with because the city is a very romantic city and it's really beautiful. It's not that Maine isn't beautiful because that's an incredible place also but there is a spirit about San Francisco that is very unique."
The 60's proved to be a particularly fertile decade for Bennett. "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life" and "This Is All I Ask" all soared to the top of the charts and several of the albums he recorded during this period (When Lights Are Low, Alone Together) are considered among his finest. As Bennett recalls, "I had a wonderful arranger, Marty Manning, who never blew horns about his career and never wanted his name mentioned or anything like that but I remember when I was a young singer he said to me, 'Just know that whenever I do an arrangement for you, it's going to be just right for you...' Lo and behold, every time we had a hit record and I had quite a few of them, it was Marty Manning who had done the orchestrations. He'd never take the credit but Marty Manning was the one who wrote the music so that it would be an absolute perfect fit to whatever I was singing."
As for today's music, Bennett believes that art has taken a backseat to the bottom line and that the tide began to turn with the man behind the candelabra. "Liberace was the first one. He was playing the Waldorf but at the same time he was saying,'I'd like to play Madison Square Garden,'" Bennett recalls. "He was the first one to fill 35,000 seats. Every producer in town said, 'This kind of thing can make us a ton of money...' and suddenly you had performers doing their acts in these enormous stadiums. I resented it because I sing intimately and acoustically. I'm not in any race to try and be bigger than another act or something like that...It means more to me to have a composer come up and say, 'Nobody performed my song better than that.' That's the game I play, you know?"
Bennett's eldest son, Danny, has been responsible for many of his father's most successful recording ventures including Tony Bennett Duets: An American Classic. "He was the one who came up with that idea of having all of the young artists record an album with me," Bennett says. In terms of future projects, there's a highly anticipated collaboration with Lady Gaga being released later this year. "I think people are going to be shocked because we did all of these great American standards and Gaga has a wonderful Ella Fitzgerald quality on this album," says Bennett. "I think people are going to be surprised and very impressed."
After his appearance in Portland, Bennett is back on the road with performances scheduled everywhere from Pittsburgh to Kansas. Between engagements, he keeps up with his other passion - painting. "It's not that I want to do it," Bennett says. "I have to sing. I have to paint. I never want to stop learning until the day I die, you know? I just want to keep trying to explore and improve. I'm just going to keep going for it, you know?"
[Mark Griffin is a writer for the Boston-based organization Laughter With a Lesson]
Go and Do:
What: Tony Bennett in Concert (One Night Only)
Where: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle Street, Portland
When: Saturday, April 19. 7:30pm
Saturday, November 9, 2013
|photo credit: Charles William Bush|
"For me, the fun of being on stage is that I can say everything that everyone else is thinking but wouldn't ever dream of saying aloud," says Rivers. "Being on stage gives me the opportunity and the privilege of saying, 'Are you crazy? Come on, this one is a bitch and this one is a tramp and exactly who are we kidding here?"
Outrageous and unsparing, Rivers is packing up her trademark pink boa and heading for the last place you'd expect to find a Phi Beta Kappa turned Vegas headliner turned QVC queen: Southern Maine. When Rivers lands at Merrill Auditorium on November 22, her appearance will be the highlight of a diverse season of Portland Ovations presentations. But how will audiences accustomed to the likes of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain respond to the uncensored Rivers at full throttle?
"Sweet, darling, tranquil Maine has cable and everyone there is part of the audience that's watching me on Fashion Police or tuning in to Breaking Bad," Rivers says. "So I'm not worried for a second about how I'll be received. Maine has gone universal and everything has become so global now. In fact, I'm sure there's a great bagel shop somewhere in Portland, Maine. And I'll bet there's someone eating sushi in Maine right now as we're talking. Everything is so one world now that it's frightening. I find it hilarious that when I'm in some remote place like Peru, someone will rush up to me and say, 'Oh, we love you, Joan!' and I'm thinking...Peru? The whole world has now become like one small village."
|photo credit: Charles William Bush|
"I'm in a business where there is no guarantee on anything," says Rivers. "A friend of mine literally didn't know that his television series had been cancelled until his agent called him up and said, 'I'm sorry but it's already in the papers...' There is no security in our business, unless you're very lucky like a Jerry Seinfeld and you own a piece of a humongous hit...But I've been lucky, too. I'm one of those few people that found what they love to do and I've been doing it all my life and I never stop enjoying it."
For Rivers, the road to multi-media domination has been long and winding. After graduating from Barnard College, the demure English lit major from Larchmont who dreamed of being an actress realized that she had a gift for making people laugh. Rivers began refining her stand-up technique in seedy nightclubs ("We'd pass the hat and sometimes the hat wouldn't come back") and strip joints, where she was billed as "Pepper January - Comedy with Spice."
In 1959, Rivers appeared in an off-off Broadway play entitled Driftwood. Also featured in the show was an aspiring young actress from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School named Barbara Streisand. "It wasn't so much off Broadway. It was actually above Broadway, as in six flights up," Rivers remembers. "My poor parents had to climb six flights to see this terrible play. The playwright had turned his living room into a theatre on East Forty-ninth Street. And I was there with my little friend, 'Babsie' Streisand. She was still Barbara Streisand then, with all three a's in her first name and I was still Joan Molinsky. It was such a bad play. They had originally offered it to Geraldine Page, who was then married to an actor named Ralph Meeker. Both of them could read, so they turned it down. Then the director started to look for smaller names - a lot smaller - and they ended up with Barbra, who was still a senior in high school and they couldn't get anyone to play the male lead. I read the script and I said, 'Can't we make this about two women? Turn them into lesbians!' And this was very edgy for the time. So I became Barbra Streisand's lover in Driftwood."
Rivers next became a "girl writer" for The Ed Sullivan Show and Candid Camera. In 1965, after what Rivers describes as "seven years of rejection and humiliation," she made an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the host predicted on air: "You're going to be a star."
Eventually Rivers would become the first and only permanent guest host of The Tonight Show and she says Carson taught her an important lesson about holding back until show time. "He believed you should always 'save it for the screen.' He'd walk right past you in the make-up room and barely say hello to you before the show,' Rivers recalls. "He wanted all of that energy out there on the set. Because if you've already blown all of the good stuff like 'How's your wife?' or "I heard your dog isn't well...' then what are you going to talk about on camera?"
|photo credit: Charles William Bush|
The day after her Portland Ovations appearance, Rivers will headline back to back shows at Boston's Wilbur Theatre. Carol Ann Small, a motivational humorist based in Melrose, Mass., bought her tickets minutes after they went on sale. Small, the founder of Laughter With A Lesson, is hoping to meet her idol backstage between engagements. "As a funny lady and a fellow blonde - notice that I didn't say 'natural blonde' - Joan Rivers has always been an inspiration to me," says Small. "To this day, Joan continues to pave the way for women in comedy and I'm thrilled that she's finally being recognized as a pioneer."
So does Rivers see herself as a trailblazer? "I see myself as a desperate woman trying to slap Kathy Griffin and Whitney Cummings out of the way so that I can get back on the stage," Rivers admits. "I feel so competitive. Whenever another comedian says to me, 'You're an icon' or 'You're a legend,' I want to say, 'And darling, I can still take you with one hand tied behind my back.'"
Rivers says that's she counting on two things when she arrives in Vacationland: "I'm delighted to come to Maine and I bet it's going to be filled with snow, which I'm very excited about. Also, they tell me that I'm going to have the equivalent of the gay men's choir up there, which I hope is true." Rivers readily acknowledges that the gay community has always been a key component of her fan base. "I think they like me because I'm outspoken and then on a serious level, I was the first performer to come out fighting against AIDS when it was still being called 'Gay Pneumonia.' I did the first benefit and we got such hate mail that we had to have armed guards on stage. We even got death threats. I think somehow the community remembers that I lived through that with them. And beyond all of that, I just think that I am a gay man living in a fat Jewish woman's body."
Saturday, August 24, 2013
|Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in|
"The Girl Hunt Ballet"
from Vincente Minnelli's musical The Band Wagon
It's been called "the greatest of movie musicals" and now The Band Wagon is returning to the big screen. Join Vincente Minnelli biographer Mark Griffin as he introduces a special 60th anniversary screening of Minnelli's acclaimed masterpiece at the Museum of Modern Art Film Center (11 W. 53 St., between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) on September 5th at 8pm. Originally released in the summer of 1953,The Band Wagon stars Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Nanette Fabray. The film features such timeless tunes as "That's Entertainment," "By Myself" and "Dancing in the Dark" and boasts an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Widely considered one of MGM's finest achievements, The Band Wagon is capped with the sly and stylish private eye spoof, "The Girl Hunt Ballet." In later years, director Minnelli would single out The Band Wagon as a personal favorite, telling an interviewer, "We all pitched in and it all came together wonderfully." The critics concurred. In reviewing a reissue of the film, Pauline Kael conceded, "There have been few screen musicals as good as this one." For further information on this event, please visit www.moma.org.
|Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in The Visit|
|Ingrid Bergman and her pet panther in The Visit|
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
What better way to welcome Valentine's Day and Oscar season than with one of the most romantic Oscar-winning movies ever made? "Gigi" Introduced by Vincente Minnelli biographer, Mark Griffin 2/14/13 7:00 pm - 10:00 pm Emerson College Paramount Center Bright Family Screening Room "Gigi" (MGM, 1958), winner of nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, this sumptuous musical stars Leslie Caron as a precocious Parisian girl groomed to be a kept woman, who comes to realize she'd rather marry for love instead. Laced with some of Lerner-and-Loewe's finest songs ("Thank Heaven for Little Girls," "The Night They Invented Champagne") and considered to be the last great MGM musical, this luxurious production crowned the career of acclaimed director Vincente Minnelli. "Gigi" will be introduced by Emerson graduate Mark Griffin, author of "A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli" (Da Capo Press). Before the main feature, Griffin will screen a compilation of clips from some of Minnelli's other movies including "Meet Me In St. Louis," "An American in Paris" and "The Band Wagon." Read more in Arts Boston HERE. Sponsored by Department of Visual and Media Arts. For more information please contact: Anna Feder