Tony Bennett, rock star


He may have left his heart in San Francisco, but Tony Bennett found his audience on MTV.

That's right. Tony Bennett -- whose career as lasted longer than most MTV acts have been alive -- is suddenly the darling of the alternative rock set. He's toured with the Lemonheads and Teenage Fanclub, and palled around with Anthony Keidis and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He's done cameos on "The Simpsons" and interviews with Rolling Stone. Needless to say, he had no trouble getting his most recent video (for "Steppin' Out with My Baby") in regular rotation on MTV.

How does he feel about this sudden interest from the modern rock crowd?

"Well, I love it," he says, over the phone from his New York apartment. "I'm playing to alternative stations, rock stations, and I must tell you that it's actually the best audience I've ever had in my life. They're sharper than anybody in the United States right now."

Bennett adds that what he likes best about these younger listeners is that "I don't have to compromise. I still do what I've always been doing. They're accepting me completely, and it's a phenomenon in my life. It's a vein that I thought we had lost completely.

"I had to wait through that whole generation-gap period -- which lasted about 35 years -- where the marketing people said, 'This is your music, and your parents like the other kind.' Whatever that meant. So it feels very pleasing to me now to know that it's coming back around, where the young people are starting to close in and like all kinds of music now."

It's not as if Bennett has ever lacked for fans, mind. Over the years, he's been praised by some of the best in the business. Frank Sinatra has called him "the best singer in the business," while Barbra Streisand raved that Bennett "sings lyrics with the deep personal concern of a folk singer who brings out the true meaning of a song."

Part of Bennett's appeal stems from the fact that his voice has lost little of its luster over the years, something the singer credits to his early training. "I had really good teachers at the very beginning," he says. "They taught me how to take care of myself. And I've been fortunate enough to be really impressed with them, so that no matter what fashion came along, I didn't adhere to it. I just went straight ahead with what they taught me."

But what listeners most admire about Bennett's work is the way he illuminates the inner beauty of his material. Even when he's singing songs we've heard dozens of times before, like "The Lady Is a Tramp" or "They Can't Take That Away from Me," Bennett somehow manages to add extra meaning to the lyric and fresh excitement to the melody.

"Well, the first thing I do is just try to do what the composer had in mind," he says of his approach. "So I give him a proper interpretation of his song. And I stay very consistent to that melody -- I'm a firm melody singer.

"But then, every once in a while, your anxiety takes over and says, 'Something is needed here,' " he adds with a chuckle. "All of a sudden, you find yourself flying. You say, 'I should throw in a little lick here, to keep it interesting.' I don't overdo it, but I do it when I feel it's needed."

In that sense, it's easy to see why his current album, the Grammy-winning "Steppin' Out," is a tribute to Fred Astaire. Because like Bennett, Astaire always made a point of respecting the melody and lyrics of the songs he sang.

No wonder, says Bennett, that "every single great composer of the halcyon days wanted Astaire to do their songs. They knew he had just impeccable taste, and that if he did it, it would be just nailed down the way they wanted it done. He was that caring about it.

"And all of those songs have become America's greatest tradition," he adds. "He'll just go down in history as the best interpreter of the best songs that were ever written."

Ironically, Astaire's singing was often upstaged by his dancing. "You know, I deal with this one song, 'You're All the World to Me,' by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane," says Bennett. "When he danced to that song, he danced on the walls and the ceiling, in 'Royal Wedding.' And he's such a phenomenal dancer that everybody forgot the song.

"But it's a wonderful, wonderful song. My God, what a song! Everybody that hears it now says, 'Where did you get that song?' They forgot the song because they're still trying to figure out how he danced on the walls and the ceiling."

After paying tribute to Fred Astaire, Bennett's next project will be a live album. But not just any live album. "We're about to do an 'MTV Unplugged'," he says. "k.d. lang and Elvis Costello are going to be guests, and I'm doing about 80 percent of the show with the trio, the Ralph Sharon Trio. That'll be the album."

Bennett, of course, has always been unplugged, and in fact seems put off by the "macho-ism" that has steadily upped the volume in popular music since the '40s. "It just got louder and louder," he says. "It's louder than taxicabs in New York, it's so loud now.

"But they used to do everything with such care, and there was more poetry in the music. The music was never louder than the singer, if you know what I mean. It always accompanied the singer, and it was really more correct."

Needless to say, that's the way Tony Bennett does it, too.

Tony Bennett

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: Sold out

Call: (410) 783-8000

"Steppin' Out"

To hear excerpts from Tony Bennett's Grammy-winning album "Steppin' Out," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four digit code 6131 after you hear the greeting.

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