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TONY! TONY! TONY!

TONY BENNETT IS GETTING OLDER--AND BETTER.

The campaign to sell Tony Bennett to a new generation of listeners has focused on hipness. Here, according to Madison Avenue, is a crooner beloved by the most popular alternative rockers of the Nineties--a veteran vocalist game enough to appear onstage at a 1993 MTV awards program dressed like a pimp from a Beastie Boys clip. While other belters of his age grouse to followings that shrink a little more with each passing year about the sad decline in the taste of America's youth, Bennett issues stylish videos and duets with k.d. lang and Elvis Costello.

But that's not the real Tony Bennett. The genuine item is an artist who takes his work very, very seriously. Rather than drift aimlessly on a wave of nostalgia built up over the decades, he continues to search for ways to imbue the music he loves with even more passion and elegance. And he's succeeding: At 68, he is as skilled and confident a singer as any drawing breath, capable of delivering musical insights that escaped him when he was a younger man. But he's also a performer who knows what he likes--and what he likes are what he calls "the great songs that were primarily made from the early Thirties to the mid-Forties. It was a tremendous time that created what I think of as the American songbook." He'll hang with the Red Hot Chili Peppers if that's what his son and manager, Danny Bennett, thinks would be best, but he's not going to cover "Give It Away." And given his druthers, he'd prefer to chat about Bing Crosby.

"I've seen early Bing Crosby films where he was very dramatic, and it was just too hot for the screen," Bennett says. "But over time he learned to put a pipe in his mouth and sing in a very relaxed way. And the minute he did that, he just blazed. He became the biggest singer in America, and he gave the rest of us a living. He taught us the art of intimate singing."

Bennett has never forgotten this lesson. In fact, he has spent a lifetime perfecting it. When he was new on the scene, a handsome young slab of Italian-American manhood who could set the girls to wailing with a single sustained note, he used his tremendous pipes to blow songs apart: Listen to "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," cut in 1950, and you'll hear a striking but lugubrious performance reminiscent of less gifted peers such as Al Martino, all set to a busy arrangement that forces him to fight for preeminence in the mix. Today Bennett has learned that such displays are not necessary and may actually destroy many of the fragile nuances that convinced him to add certain songs to his repertoire in the first place. He's grown to appreciate the joys of austerity.

"What happens is, you find yourself," he says. "For many years I worked with big bands and the big philharmonic orchestras. But recently my musical director, Ralph Sharon, and I took a dare and brought a trio into the Hollywood Bowl. It was quite an innovation, playing to 18,000 people in that format. And we got great reviews. The late Leonard Feather wrote, `It doesn't get any better than this,' and the audience was very supportive. They didn't feel, `God, they should have had an orchestra,' because this honing down, this simplicity, creates spontaneity. Nothing gets stage-weighty. If I want to change a song in the middle of a show, I just say, `Ralph, let's do "More Than You Know,"' or whatever, and he'll turn around and do the number, just like that. That's the kind of challenge I like taking on."

This feistiness has its roots in Bennett's background. The son of a grocer who had moved from Italy to Astoria (in the Queens borough of New York City) a short time earlier, the former Anthony Benedetto was born in 1926 and soon developed a fascination for art and singing. After a three-year hitch in the Army, he decided to make the latter his vocation and found work as an entertainer on Long Island and in other communities on the outskirts of Manhattan. From the start, he was both a quick study and a fan of the geniuses he saw around him. "There was a renaissance of the best American composers then," he enthuses. "You had Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, George and Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg. And then you had the Duke Ellingtons and the Count Basies, very talented black composers who weren't really allowed on the so-called legitimate stage at that time--and individual great artists like Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, George Shearing, Ben Webster, Lester Young..." He pauses before listing even more favorites. Ever the gracious gentleman, he seems fearful of leaving anyone out.

Brimming with vigor, Bennett, then using the stage name Joe Bari, hit the road in an effort to prepare himself for the big time. "Years ago there was a circuit where you could break in and learn your craft," he recalls. "It was a vaudeville circuit, but I caught the tail end of it. You started in New York and you went to Wilkes-Barre and Philadelphia, and you worked your way across the whole country. And by the time you came back, your act was ready for the Palace Theater."

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