Dear Mr. Bennett,
I rarely dress up. Outside of a funeral, you’d never see me in a tie. So when I found out you were coming to The Civic National Theater in San Jose I got a ticket for my best friend and I. I grew up listening to your album Tony Bennett’s Greatest Hits, Vol. III, which is among my father’s favorites. I can still see the cover, a gray background with you donning a white shirt with high collar, your hands gesticulating anguish, yet pleading the power of the voice to inevitably triumph over the odds — come what may. A mutual friend saw me in my light blue shirt, blue tie and blue sport coat. He was taken by it. After all, I am an activist whose standard attire is a t-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt.
“You look quite dapper”, said my friend.
“I’m going to see Tony Bennett”
“Is there any other Tony Bennett?”
“You look … different … all dolled up.”
“This ain’t Justin Beavers I’m going to see”, I replied, “I’m going to see Tony Bennett. You dress accordingly — with class, respect.”
“Yeah, and toss Justin Timberlake and Justin Herman in there too.”
“Justin Herman didn’t make music.”
“Yeah, I know,” I replied, adjusting my tie.
I had waited a long time to see you in person. Now my wait was about to end.
My friend and I entered the theater. We were in the fourth row. In front of me a woman with towering blonde hair. I would be craning my neck for sure, I thought. The lights went down. Enter Antonia Bennett and the Tony Bennett quartet. Antonia has inherited your charisma, with a unique voice. She has clearly taken in the pages of the song book written by the great composers, with sassy versions of “Old Black Magic” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Her version of “From this Moment On” cast a shadow of reflection over the packed audience:
For you’ve got the love I need so much
Got the skin I love to touch
Got the arms to hold me tight
Got the sweet lips to kiss me goodnight
She intimated to the audience that you taught her much about being a singer, about being a human being, and dedicated Billie Holiday’s “You’re a Lucky Guy” to you. Finally, she belted out a passionate song of lust for life:
From this happy day, no more blue songs
Only whoop-dee-doo songs, from this moment on
To me, her voice was like the fragrance of a flower I’d never smelled before. Her resemblance to you is strong and she very capably set the tone, along with the quartet for your entrance.
I looked around the theater. It was packed with mostly older folk — some with metal walkers but spry nonetheless — with a generous helping of middle aged folk, sprinkled with young folks who appeared to be in their early 30s. Sartorially, the scene was everything I expected — made-up hair, sequins, leopard prints, shawls, floral prints, a cowboy hat, and an aloha shirt tossed in for good measure.
Then, enter Frank: The voice of Frank Sinatra over the PA saying something to the effect of, “This cat, Tony Bennett, is the best singer in the world today.” And then: enter you.
Applause, standing ovation — you in a gray silk suit, arms wide in a gesture of embrace. Enter your voice, familiar and still powerful at the age of 92. Songs sung, heard, felt; songs that move us through the cycles, the conundrums of this life. You: enter us.
In Love: It amazes me what she sees in me … Steppin’ out with my baby
In Loneliness: In my solitude you taunt me with memories that never die
I sat in the audience and through the songs you interpret, bring to life, refuse to let die — I think of my city and of the lives and isolation of its people. Your songs echo their feelings, articulate the despair as in the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
The joy that you find here you borrow
You cannot keep it long it seems
But gigolo and gigolette
Still sing a song and dance along
The boulevard of broken dreams
The author James Baldwin said that it is the artists, the poets, ultimately, that show us what it means — not only to live in this world, but to survive it. The singer’s is the voice to the human interaction, the condition. In a melodious movement of molecules, in the form of sound that becomes one with the living parts of our being and to the world. The writer Ralph Ellison, in Shadow and Act, tells us that “One of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time. Timeless songs are the ones that are the most powerful.”
A medley of your hits included your rendition of Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart.” The ensuing years since then one in which you recorded it (1951) have brought an even deeper meaning in the current state of the world, our country, and in my city, San Francisco, where the heart has grown not only cold, but freezing. And in the audience I can see them, the seniors who have been evicted and displaced. They are here, their spirits somehow one with the music — Carl Jensen, Iris Canada, Ron Lickers — and countless others who our city forgot but who many of us, holding on to the hope of our city refuse to forget, holding on to shadows:
The shadow of your smile
When you are gone
Will color all my dreams
And light the dawn
And, of course, there was, in homage to Sinatra, “Fly me to the Moon”, “The Way You look tonight” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, complete with shot glass. I took those songs as homage to your audience, here in San Jose and worldwide, who are surely the source of your longevity. And again, your timeless voice:
Love is funny or is sad
A good thing or its bad
The Tony Bennett Quartet kept up with you at every step with ripe guitar riffs, piano solos that were reminiscent of the great Bill Evans, up-tempo, mid-tempo — every tempo that reached into our hearts with understatement both seductive and jubilant, like a tide under a quiet moon that illuminates the world on its darkest nights.
My friend, who accompanied me to your show, was very moved by your rendition of “In My Solitude”, bringing up the memory of his father, the passing of his father’s wife of more than 50 years. William and Blanca, both joined somewhere else while my friend feels their presence in this theater, and in all places and spaces their spirit and memory sure to enter.
In my solitude
Dear Lord above
Send back my love
Mr. Bennett, I think of the seniors in SF who are isolated, who are threatened with homelessness. I think of the fight for deeply affordable housing going on right now in our city. Are your songs political? It is for the listener to behold and take in the meaning. A line in one of your songs pierced my mind and still resonates: “Our love is here to stay.”
Thank you for a wonderful show. And as we continue to fight for the heart of the City of San Francisco, we can’t forget the words you sang on Friday, “How do you keep the music playing?”
In spite of everything, we must continue to try. Who can ask for anything more?
Tony Robles is a San Francisco native, writer, storyteller, and housing advocate for Senior & Disability Action. Read his first letter to Tony Bennett on the occasion of Tony’s 90th birthday here.