At age 91, with an empire of accolades and few signs of slowing down, Tony Bennett — the recipient of the 2017 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song — is decades past needing more evidence that his signature sound continues to resonate with new audiences.
Still, the fact that We McDonald, the 18-year-old breakout from the latest season of The Voice, was the one who brought the house down among an A-list of artists paying tribute to Bennett last night (November 15) in D.C., is proof positive for the artist of whom Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden said “has given new meaning to the words timeless and immortal.”
Bennett has sold 10 million albums and has 19 Grammys to his quality-synonymous name, including album of the year in 1995 for MTV Unplugged, and best traditional pop vocal album for Duets and Duets II in 2006 and 2011, respectively. And his star continues to ascend through cosmic shifts in the delivery and consumption of music. The event celebrating his legacy will air on PBS on Friday, January 12.
The assemblage of musical well-wishers delivering their versions of timeless Bennett songs — “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “For Once In My Life,” “Smile,” and “Steppin Out” among them — was on-point. Some were artists lauded for their Bennett-like musical delivery, including Michael Bublé (who joked, “I don’t want you to get too emotional, but there will be no Christmas songs tonight — it’s all about Tony”) — Josh Groban, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Vanessa Williams. Others tout different styles but have strong Bennett connections, including 2017 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Gloria Estefan, Lukas Nelson, whose father Willie Nelson was the 2015 Gershwin honoree, and Stevie Wonder, who performed “If I Ruled the World,” and dueted with Estefan on “What a Wonderful World,” with a surprise lyrical tip of the hat to Bennett.
Bennett addressed the magic of his duets during one of the event’s pre-taped video segments. And several of his collaborators, among them the late Amy Winehouse, Bono and Lady Gaga, whose professional relationship with Bennett blossomed into 2014 album Cheek To Cheek and tour, were in the room via video footage and interviews. “The whole thing is the voices have to be different,” Bennett said. The success is in the difference.”
Gaga’s physical absence (she had a tour date in Kansas City) was noted. Last year’s Gershwin Prize recipient Smokey Robinson got a heartfelt introduction from his soulmate Berry Gordy, and it was hard not to think about the endearment she would’ve provided had she been able to attend.
Instead, a lineup of politicos, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and longtime Bennett pal Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), in full fan-girl mode, accompanied Hayden to the stage to usher in Bennett as an official Gershwin-ite.
An elated Bennett was short on words, preferring to let his singing, and his smile, do the talking. “I wake up and say, ‘What shall I create today?’ What a feeling that is… I perform all over the world, but this is the best night I’ve ever felt on a stage,” he noted, before sliding with ease into a medley of “They All Laughed,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”
He was notably humbled by his presence on this stage, in the nation’s capital. “I don’t know what to say, I just know I love the United States of America,” he told the crowd. “With all due respect, I perform all over the world and they still haven’t topped us.”
Before the show, Bennett told reporters, “Washington is the greatest city in the greatest country in the world.” And to those who don’t care for the current Administration? “Well that’s their problem,” he answered, noting he knows the current President “very well,” and a performance for Donald Trump is likely. “Sooner or later I’ll probably be doing something for him,” he said. During the election run-up, Bennett performed at fundraisers for Hillary Clinton.
After acknowledging Lena Horne was his all-time favorite collaborator, Bennett hinted to Billboard a new collaboration with Gaga is on the horizon. “I’m definitely going to do another song with Lady Gaga — New Year’s Eve,” he said.