Since he started his career on national television in 1951, Tony Bennett has been a constant presence on the small screen.
That legacy climaxed — but hardly concluded — last year with the NBC special Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come.
Sitting in his studio on Central Park South, Bennett is watching vintage clips of his television performances, going back to the beginning, on a laptop. The obvious point comes up: when he started appearing on television, the medium itself was brand-spanking new. The idea that one could watch video on a portable device was undreamed of, even in science-fiction stories.
It also would have been impossible to predict that Bennett, only 25 when he made his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, would become the elder statesman of the American popular song, a nonagenarian cultural ambassador who still brings classic tunes to each new generation.
As if to illustrate the continuity between the young Tony of the 1950s and ’60s and the living legend of 2017, Bennett proudly offers, “I’m still singing the same way today.” He repeatedly sings along with his younger self. “How do you like that,” he says, laughing. “I’m still in the same key!”
What was it like to be an important part of the first generation of young singers to work in this new medium? Bennett answers that question with an anecdote. “I could have made movies, but I preferred to work in front of live audiences, and TV was part of that — there was always a live audience.”
He then tells a story about meeting the legendary actor Cary Grant many years later. “He told me that what he didn’t like about the movies was that you had to wait months and months before you knew whether the audience approved of your performance or not. He said that he was jealous of me, because he would have preferred to be working in front of live audiences. Can you imagine? Cary Grant was jealous of me!”
THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, 1951–71
Bennett had been on other TV shows before September 23, 1951, when he made his debut on the most-watched program of its day, Toast of the Town (well before the title was officially changed to The Ed Sullivan Show). But Sullivan, he points out, “was a big deal then. The biggest! When you were on Ed Sullivan, everybody in the whole country was watching you.
There is no looking at it any other way. It made many seasons for me — he had always had me on at least once a year, sometimes more.”
Watching that first Sullivan appearance today, Bennett approves of the way he started with what was his first huge pop hit, “Because of You,” done with the full CBS Orchestra, and followed it with a swinging jazz number, “Sing, You Sinners,” performed with just his touring trio (featuring his mentor Billy Exiner on drums).
“You can see that I wanted to show the world that there was more to me than my big chart hits, that I could do a lot of different things, like a jazz song. I kept on singing ‘Sing, You Sinners’ in my act until very recently.
You can also see that I’m really working hard to entertain the people here — not just to stand there and sing.” His jazz side would be spotlighted on Sullivan for decades to come. Future Sullivan shows would see him sharing the stage with Woody Herman, Bobby Hackett, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
PURINA’S GRAND OLE OPRY, 1956
Bennett takes great pride in being the first mainstream pop singer to record — and score a huge hit with — a song by country star Hank Williams. In fact, his 1951 recording of “Cold, Cold Heart” went a long way toward helping country-and-western music gain respect and mass-market visibility.
Bennett tells the story of how Williams called him up and confronted him, asking, “What’s the idea of ruining my song?” As Bennett tells it, this was well before he had done much traveling in the South, and at the time he was unaware of the fine Alabama tradition of ironically affectionate insults. The greater truth was that Williams, who died in 1953 at age 29, loved the record and appreciated what Bennett had done for him.
A few years later, the Nashville music fraternity made Bennett one of the first mainstream artists to appear on the flagship program of the country-music world, the Grand Ole Opry .
In a surviving kinescope, he sings and banters with such iconic artists as Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and the 25-year-old June Carter. “What I learned from that experience was that a great song is a great song,” Bennett says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s by Richard Rodgers or Hank Williams. I based my whole career on the premise of only doing good songs.”
THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW, 1958
“Steve was one of the pioneers of television, in terms of the presentation of music, as well as comedy,” Bennett says. “Plus, he was an excellent songwriter and a musician himself. And on top of that, he was a sensational guy. It was always an honor to do his show.”
One of the richest parts of Bennett’s television legacy is his collection of appearances on Steve Allen’s various programs, especially the classic Sunday-night series NBC ran against CBS’s ratings champ, Ed Sullivan. In 1958, Bennett sang “Pennies From Heaven” in the middle of an elaborately staged production number filmed on the streets outside the NBC studio.
In 1960, Allen, always a jazz fan, had Bennett singing with jazz greats Bobby Hackett and Bob Wilber. Later that year, on the day after Halloween, Bennett performed “Sing, You Sinners” as a spontaneous duet with Frankenstein’s monster (played by king-sized comic Louis Nye).
THE TONY BENNETT SHOW, 1956, and PERRY PRESENTS, 1959
In the late ‘50s, Bennett starred in and hosted two weekly variety series, both of which were summer replacement shows that placed him smack dab in the middle of two legends.
The first was Perry Como, whose time slot Bennett was taking over for the summer. Upon meeting Bennett for the first time, the veteran TV star marched him straight to a little church around the corner from the NBC studio and insisted that he give his confession. The other was Frank Sinatra, whom he also had never previously met.
“I was so nervous — I had never done anything like this before — that when someone told me Frank Sinatra was in town, I got the idea of asking him for advice. It was a great gamble, but I went to the Paramount Theater, where he was playing, unannounced. I found his dressing room and knocked on the door. He said, ‘Hello, Tony, come on in.’
"I was surprised because I had no idea he even knew who I was. But he told me something that I’ve never forgotten. I told him that I was nervous, and he said that was a good thing. He said, ‘The audience likes it when you’re nervous. It means that you really care and that you want to give a good show.’ We were close friends from that day forward.”
The Tony Bennett Show ran for five weeks, in August and September 1956. It was followed three years later by Perry Presents, which starred Bennett and several singing female cohosts (including Theresa Brewer, Peggy King and future Gong Show panelist Jaye P. Morgan) and ran from June to August 1959.
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON, 1962–92
“I was on the very first Tonight Show with Johnny Carson [October 1, 1962] and he kept having me back on for the whole 30 years that he was on the air.” On that premiere episode, Bennett shared the famous Carson couch with Mel Brooks, Rudy Vallee and Joan Crawford. (Alas, that episode hasn’t survived. It’s probably the most valuable piece of missing Tony Bennett footage there is — or, rather, isn’t.)
For the next three decades, Bennett made regular appearances alongside Carson, announcer-pitchman Ed McMahon and trumpeter-bandleader Doc Severinsen.
Over the course of those years, he would sing virtually every notable song in his catalog, from “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1962, to “The Good Life” in 1963, to “For Once in My Life” in 1968, to his big numbers of the 1980s, like “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” and “When Do the Bells Ring for Me.”
One especially memorable moment in the show’s history occurred on October 27, 1975, when Bennett brought along collaborator Bill Evans to per-form two classic songs from their groundbreaking duets album. (Bennett and Evans also appeared together, doing no fewer than eight numbers, on a half- hour special produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1976.)
THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW, 1963
Few would deny that Garland was a great entertainer but she proved to be too intense, too high-maintenance, too in-your-face for the low-key medium of television. The variety-show format was better suited to more casual performers, such as Perry Como or Dinah Shore.
Still, all 26 episodes of The Judy Garland Show — CBS’s noble experiment of the 1963–64 season — are considered classics, especially the December 15, 1963, outing with Bennett. The episode peaks in a spectacular duet medley of songs about American cities and states, including “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Kansas City,” building to Bennett’s then-recent blockbuster hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Bennett vividly remembers that he and Garland were in particularly high spirits on the day that number was videotaped. They were not only overjoyed to be in each other’s company, but also highly amused by the antics of the dancers pirouetting around them.
“I’m proud to say that I was close to Judy in the last 10 years of her life. We were friends through good times and bad — mostly good. It was an honor to work with her, or even just to be in her presence.”
SINGER PRESENTS TONY BENNETT, 1966
In 1965, Frank Sinatra made his first A Man and His Music TV special and opened up a whole new format for popular singers: half variety show and half concert. When Bennett followed suit a few months later, he did it his own way, making his special a showcase not just for himself but also for a half-dozen jazz greats, including Milt Jackson, Buddy Rich and Candido.
Bennett fondly remembers this special because of the amazing cornet work of one of his heroes, Bobby Hackett, who played with him on his first big hit, “Because of You.”
“Watching this clip reminds me of the days when I would hang out with Bobby and Louis Armstrong at his place in Queens — I got to watch them play together. They were both just the greatest. Everybody loved Bobby — Pops [Armstrong] used to say, ‘I may be the coffee, but Bobby’s the cream!’”
TONY AND LENA, 1973
Produced in England by Lew Grade’s ITV network, this special was another groundbreaker. What could be better than a great singer performing his greatest songs? How about two great singers performing together and solo? Bennett began working regularly with Lena Horne around 1969, when they performed on Kraft Music Hall together on NBC.
Throughout the 1970s, they toured extensively during a very difficult time for the great diva, not long after she’d lost all three of the most important men in her life: her father, her son and her husband, all within a year of each other.
“Lena’s professionalism was so intense that it literally was scary,” Bennett remembers. “She focused all of her grief into her music, and her concentration was amazing. I was both thrilled and even scared to come to work every night.” Their amazing chemistry is captured beautifully in this sequence of solos and duets, in which the two principals spend the bulk of their screen time on stage together.
MTV UNPLUGGED, 1994
Bennett points out that, in his childhood, it was possible for an entire family to listen to the same music together. He remembers huddling around the radio with his siblings and cousins, as well as his aunts and uncles and grandparents, to enjoy Bing Crosby or the Mills Brothers. But by the time his own kids were growing up, things had changed.
In the 1960s and ’70s, adults listened to one sort of music, and teenagers listened to something entirely different. It became Bennett’s mission to reunify listeners.
“I didn’t want to create music just for this group or that one, but I wanted to sing for everybody, for all the generations.” Bennett proved his point rather spectacularly with his 1994 performance on the cable series MTV Unplugged, which was released as an album shortly afterward.
On the cusp of 70, he made one of the best-selling albums of his career and won Album of the Year, the most significant of his 19 Grammy Awards — proving that his music could be loved by everyone, from World War II veterans like himself to kids the age of his grandchildren.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, THE MUPPETS AND MORE
In his 70s, 80s and 90s, Bennett continued to appear on late-night talk shows (hosted by the likes of David Letterman and Stephen Colbert) as well as morning and daytime magazine shows (The Today Show, CBS This Morning, The View ). He also did a lot of programs aimed at young people, including The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and Muppets Tonight.
In fact, cast members from all three shows made appearances on his 90th-birthday special in 2016. Bennett takes pride in being the first major “celebrity guest voice” on The Simpsons, having taped his guest shot there just as the show was exploding, during the second season, in 1990.
His team-ups with the Muppets have thus far involved not only television (the 1996 series Muppets Tonight), but also albums (1998’s The Playground) and movies (2014’s Muppets Most Wanted). For the past 10 years or so, Bennett has been a recurring character on Saturday Night Live. Sometimes he appears in person, but more often in a loving impersonation by actor Alec Baldwin, who portrays Bennett as a hip-talking, hard-swinging talk-show host.
TONY BENNETT CELEBRATES 90: THE BEST IS YET TO COME, 2016
Bennett celebrated his 90th birthday with a gala concert at Radio City Music Hall. That concert served as the basis for a top-rated special that began with his most famous contemporary collaborator, Lady Gaga.
Bennett’s legacy was honored by music stars (including Elton John, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel), actors (Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin) and cultural icons ranging from the late Don Rickles to Regis Philbin to Celine Dion to Homer Simpson to Miss Piggy.
It was a remarkably star-studded lineup, but the high point was when Bennett took to the stage for his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He bookended “San Francisco” with two songs that seemed especially appropriate for the occasion: “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” Although he sang them in that order, the question of the final song had already been answered by the title of the first.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017