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."

Actually it was New York's Paramount Theater where he made his first splash. Bob Hope had seen him auditioning for a revue at the Greenwich Village Inn in 1949 and had been impressed enough to add him to his show at the Paramount--so long as he ditched the Joe Bari moniker, that is. As Tony Bennett, the singer began getting better and better gigs, and his expanding following and undeniable charisma convinced Columbia Records to put him under contract a year later.

What followed was a string of popular singles: "Because of You," "Cold, Cold Heart," "Can You Find It in Your Heart," "In the Middle of an Island" and, of course, the signature track "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," cut in 1962. Bennett didn't dominate the music charts during the Fifties and early Sixties, but his hits came at predictably frequent intervals. At the same time, he weathered the rise of rock and roll with more grace than might have been expected. The reason had everything to do with his decision to resist being retooled into something he was not.

According to Bennett, "I was fortunate enough to introduce so many beautiful songs, like `Stranger in Paradise,' `Blue Velvet,' `For Once in My Life,' `The Shadow of Your Smile.' I became known for finding new songs and having them become permanent standards--and we used only the best-quality songs. But in the Sixties, everything went quite crazy--not just with music, with everything. And that's when they started saying, `We want you to cover Top 40 songs only.' They wanted me to cover Janis Joplin songs. And I said, `No, you do it.'" He laughs. "I took a hiatus on that." This is no exaggeration: Bennett's essential boxed set, Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, contains only one rock song--George Harrison's "Something."

Columbia was not amused, and when Bennett flatly refused to sing more rock music in 1971, the company dropped his contract. He subsequently founded his own record company, but in spite of a fine roster that included jazz stars Bill Evans and Earl "Fatha" Hines, it went bust. With his schedule suddenly less crowded, Bennett took up painting. The result was a second career that's won him fans such as fellow painter David Hockney and earned him a place of honor at Ohio's Butler Institute of Art, where his work is displayed alongside pieces by American masters Whistler and Homer. The name he puts on his canvases, some of which have sold for more than $50,000, is "Benedetto."

Still, Bennett didn't give up on singing. He toured regularly, and his only concession to changing times was a series of flashy toupees (his current gray, curly model is far classier than his Seventies rugs). He continued to win warm notices from reviewers, but he seemed to be drifting into semi-obscurity when his son Danny began managing him in 1979. The younger Bennett didn't ask his father to compromise his vision, but he did put a fresh spin on his image. Columbia noticed and brought Bennett back into the fold in 1986. His first album upon his return was The Art of Excellence, a disc whose title speaks volumes about Bennett's mature style.

"I used to do three albums a year for many years," he notes. "But as a result of slowing down and doing one album every two years, I've realized that the more time you take, the better it is. That way, you're really able to edit it and take care to make sure it's just right instead of doing four extra tunes just to fill up an album. I've really had the opportunity to study the art of singing."

The disc that pushed Bennett back into the limelight was Perfectly Frank, a collection of 24 songs associated with Frank Sinatra, a singer who's overshadowed Bennett since his emergence as a national figure. Bennett, however, displays not a smidgen of jealousy or resentment when speaking about the Chairman of the Board. "He's always been great to me and supportive of me, and for years he mentioned me on the road to audiences as his favorite singer," he insists. "He considers me his best friend."

The spirit of good fellowship convinced Bennett to contribute to Sinatra's 1993 Duets collection, joining the Voice for a rendition of "New York, New York." Bennett admits to wishing that he'd had the opportunity to sing in the same studio with Sinatra; like the other guests on the disc, he added his part long after the star of the show had recorded the song, causing the collaboration to sound a bit like high-tech karaoke. But at the suggestion that Bennett clearly outsang Sinatra throughout the tune and is proving to be more artistically intriguing at this juncture, the modest Bennett jumps to Sinatra's defense.

"He's conquered the whole business--I haven't surpassed him," he says. "He created a whole era, the best era of popular music, the most romantic era. And his films are wonderful. He's mastered every medium, and the people still love him." More gently, he adds, "And don't forget, he's ten years my elder. I don't know what I'm going to be doing ten years from now. I hope to stay healthy but, you know, life is life. I still think there's a lot of unpredictable things that can happen with Sinatra, where he could just straighten out and sound better than ever. There's still a very strong possibility of that."

Maybe so. After all, few would have predicted the Nineties Bennett would sound even better than the Fifties model. Others in the business have also noticed this upswing in quality: Perfectly Frank and its lovely successor, Steppin' Out, deservedly earned Grammys, and MTV Unplugged, a CD version of a television special cut earlier this year, has topped the jazz charts for more than four months. These projects have led to even more activity for Bennett, including an appearance on the upcoming Bob Hope Christmas special (he can't say enough about the lovely luncheon with Bob and his wife, Delores, that he was invited to during taping) and the planning of a one-man Broadway show set to debut in the fall of 1995. "I still have the creative urge to come up with something vital," he confides. "Everything's been done, but to come up with a fresh approach is nice.

"It's a phenomenon," he continues. "I'm 68, and all of a sudden the young MTV crowd has taken to me and considers me cool. I'm met with the same enthusiasm that I was when I first started and had all of the young fan clubs. It's thrilling, actually. It makes everything seem worthwhile."

Tony Bennett. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 15, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $33, 290-TIXS or 825-4904.

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