Tony Bennett – A Fond Farewell

By Bruce Fessier

I t was nice to see so many people sharing their remembrances of Tony Bennett on social media, but I really wanted to hear from Tony’s dear friend and colleague, Jack Jones.

Jack posted a simple statement on Facebook, saying “Goodbye my friend,” with video of the two of them singing the climax of “Climb Every Mountain,” with Jack generously letting Tony have the big ending while he sang the lower harmony part.

Jack and I often joked about him being the heir apparent to Tony in the royal lineage of traditional pop singers following in Frank Sinatra’s footsteps. But it’s not so funny after Tony died July 21 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s at age 96.

“It was frustrating not being able to say goodbye,” Jack told me by phone from his desert the day of Tony’s death. “We were very close friends and it had nothing to do with show biz. We just talked on the phone a lot.”

Jack seems to be doing well. He released a substantial album, titled ArtWork, just one week ago. It was recorded last year with Joey DeFrancesco shortly before the organ legend’s untimely death. Jack sings songs such as the dramatic “If You Go Away” and an amazing “Lush Life” with a 53-piece orchestra arranged and conducted by John Clayton of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Drummer Jeff Hamilton, saxophonist Tom Scott and pianist Tamir Hendelman make significant contributions, but they’re definitely supporting Jack’s sensitive interpretations, just as they’ve supported the talents of towering figures such as Diana Krall, Ernie Andrews, Milt Jackson and Charles Aznavour in the past. But Jack said we could do an interview about that another time.

Today is a day to remember Tony Bennett, and Jack obviously was devoted to him. He dedicated an album to him 25 years ago, titled “Jack Jones Paints a Tribute to Tony Bennett.” Jack says on his website, “I became aware of him in high school when I had my first kiss at a dance. His record, “Stranger in Paradise,” was always on the radio at the time. He sounded like what romance meant to me.”

I have a long history with Tony myself. The first big concert I ever attended was Tony Bennett at the Greek Theatre in 1963 while “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was hot on the charts. I was 10.

I first interviewed Tony by phone in the 1980s. He didn’t have a record label and he personally called the front desk (of the Desert Sun). The receptionist accidentally transferred him to our human resources director, Steve Hyatt, who heard this iconic voice say, “Hi, I’m Tony Bennett. I’m an entertainer!”

The last time I interviewed Tony was December 2017 when I convinced his publicist to let us discuss his five favorite duet partners. They were, in this order: Frank Sinatra, k.d. lang, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and Judy Garland. The one guy he regretted missing, he said, was Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971.

Tony was a regular desert visitor. He appeared many times at the McCallum Theatre and local casinos, and also sang at two Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament galas (as an opening act for Sinatra in 1994 and as a headliner in 2004).

Once, when I was writing a daily column, I got a tip that he had just golfed at Thunderbird Country Club with Lucille Ball’s widower, Gary Morton.

I’m glad I got to see and talk to Tony over a remarkable 54-year period.

He was one of a kind.

Bruce Fessier has been winning journalism for 50 years: at the community college level when he won a best in California award for spot sports writing, at the university level when he won a second place in six states competition for enterprise reporting, and during a 40-year career at The Desert Sun, when he also covered the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for USA Today. He’s now writing freelance stories and a book on the desert music scene,
“From Sinatra to Coachella.”
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