It was February 7, 2018, and for a rare time as a journalist I felt a sense of history. I was in The Sharon covering a Tony Bennett concert.
The atmosphere was electric.
You just had the feeling this was going to be an unforgettable concert.
And it was.
Tony Bennett died Friday at 96 in New York City.
But five years ago, Tony Bennett, 91, was in The Villages. He provided a packed audience the opportunity to experience an indelible part of American music history.
Bennett’s recording career stretched back to the early ‘50s, with his first big hit “Because of You.” It culminated over 70 years later with a duet album with Lady GaGa.
In August, 2021, Bennett and Lady GaGa played Radio City Music Hall in his final public performance to celebrate his 95th birthday. The last song they sang was “The Lady Is A Tramp,” and she helped him off stage in an emotional farewell.
Soon after, Bennett announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and would no longer sing in public.
In The Sharon, there was a forbidding sense of mortality. We all wondered how much longer a 91-year-old singer could go on.
Could it be, we would only be watching the shadow of greatness? Was it only nostalgia Bennett would offer? Was the golden voice tarnished by age?
Tony Bennett showed no signs of slowing down. His familiar voice was as comforting and intoxicating as ever.
I usually struggle writing the lead – the beginning of a story. On this night, it came easy, as I wrote:
“Age is a number.
Time is a moment.
And Tony Bennett’s music transcends the past and the present.
It’s timeless, ageless and universal – just like the singer.”
Early on, he performed “This Is All I Ask,” a reflective song about living, dying and coping with a changing world.
“As I approach the prime of my life,” Bennett sang early on. As he sang that lyric, he looked out into the crowd and you couldn’t help but notice a mischievous grin on his face.
We all got the joke. This guy – like so many aging people in The Villages – was having a ball with his life and defying expectations. That line resonated with the elderly fans, and the gentle laugh was audible.
“The boys and I play all over the world, but I think I would be happy living here,” Bennett said, and the audience roared with approval. That was Tony Bennett – he always found a way to connect with an audience. His warm stage demeanor, joy in performing and humanity were as much a part of his appeal as his voice.
Frank Sinatra described him this way in an interview with Life magazine:
“For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more.”
Lady GaGa (Stefani Germanotta) told USA Today that working with Bennett “was a gift that I will hold in my heart till my last breath. My time with Tony has changed me forever.”
Jan Lavin is a popular singer in the Villages and was moved by his performance here.
“Tony Bennett has been a musical mentor for me,” she said. “The way he performed tonight was an inspiration. I just want him to keep singing his songs, and I want to keep singing them.”
And those songs were part of America’s songbook and our lives. On that night, among those he performed: “Because of You,” “Jealous Heart,” “Who Can I Turn To,” “Just In Time,” and “The Good Life.”
There was more, of course: Bennett did a short, graceful soft shoe, during “Stepping Out With My Baby.” He provided a touch of cha-cha to a Latin beat on “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
Then Bennett turned on the pathos for a broken heart on “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” The mood was blue and melancholy on “Someone to Watch Over Me.” And he buried his blues with some booze in the ultimate saloon song, “One For My Baby and One More For the Road.”
And I’m sitting there thinking: Oh man, how lucky I am to be in The Villages tonight actually seeing Tony Bennett in person sing these songs.
I wasn’t the only one majestically transformed listening to Tony Bennett.
“It’s his voice and the wonderful music he sings,” said Villager Joan Weintraub. “Tony Bennett is so calm on stage, he brings these songs to life and you don’t even realize it.”
Maybe that’s why Bennett – born in Queens as Anthony Dominick Benedetto – called his biography, “The Good Life.”
No Bennett concert would be complete without his 1962 standard, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” As he sang that song in The Sharon, all of a sudden Bennett had to sneeze.
Without skipping a beat, Bennett picked up the song where he left off, and didn’t miss a beat. He was rewarded with one of six standing ovations he earned that remarkable night.
The memory of that concert – like his songs that earned nearly 20 Grammy Awards and about 60 million records sold – will endure. Bennett is survived by his wife, Susan Benedetto, and four children, including his daughter Antonia Bennett, a singer who was with him in The Villages.
“I’m so lucky, I get to travel around the world with my Dad and listen to him sing,” she said that night.
We were all lucky to be graced by the good life and great music of Tony Bennett.
Tony Violanti covers music and entertainment for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into The Buffalo Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist.