All The Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett – A Review
John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2011; 346 pps; $26.95 hardcover
After reading Tony Bennett’s 1998 autobiography, I was left considerably unsatisfied due to its lack of realistic depth. Despite Bennett’s continuous attempts to convince the reader every record he made was good music and that everyone he met was still a dear friend, it only left me feeling untrusted, as if I wasn’t worthy of the truth. Had Bennett been willing to point the same keen sense of verismo at his own motivations and outcomes as he did when recounting the deplorable policies of discrimination seen in the Army, he might have produced a biography to match his iconic standing in American pop music. As an interested fan of both Bennett’s music and life events, I hoped that a more revealing and believable account of the evergreen vocalist was yet to come. So with much fertile ground still available, into the fold steps David Evanier with his All the Things You Are. Considering his previous works were on cool-crooners Bobby Darin and Jimmy Roselli, Evanier brings a breadth of perspective to the table.
As a biographer, Evanier was faced with a question peculiar to writing about the still very much alive Bennett: should he attempt to interview the singer and thus expose himself to the influence of Bennett’s persona, or should he proceed with existing materials combined with the fresh opinions of those who orbited the main subject? The author’s response is laid out in the opening chapter on Bennett’s childhood in Astoria. There are equal portions of comments from family (cousins in particular), friends of various degrees, and quotes by Bennett himself taken from all forms of sources except for private communication with the author—a format generally adhered to throughout the book.
Bennett’s early life is portrayed as one not dissimilar to other singers of Italian heritage from the same period. There was a large family centered on a strong mother figure, a willingness to sing anywhere and everywhere for anyone, wiseguys hanging around expecting favors, and a steady sequence of opportunities met with preparation that in retrospect make success seem pre-ordained. What is impressive in these opening chapters is the level of work Bennett invested into his craft even in the earliest years. Here was a man blessed with knowing exactly what he wanted to do in life.
Evanier does an excellent job of tracing Bennett’s recording output with Columbia and elsewhere by citing quotes from many of the involved parties, including musicians, producers, and arrangers. Bennett is rarely critical of his own work so it is the comments from those on the periphery that provide the more colorful insight. For example, with regards to the 1970 album Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today, Bennett is said to have vomited before the recording session as a reaction to how unpleasant he found the contemporary material, but no direct quotes are offered. Only in the statements from producer Clive Davis is an alternative view of same event offered. According to Davis, he told Bennett, “If you keep accusing us of not promoting you enough, I have no choice but to put on my business hat. You have to update your repertoire.” This single exchange symbolizes Bennett’s life-long battle to create a catalog of artistic “great” songs as opposed to accepting the tendencies of record companies to chase after “flavor of the day” hit singles.
There are two stylistic choices Evanier makes that at times detract from Bennett’s story. First, the author often relinquishes to others substantial narrative real estate. The reader is asked to believe that the extensive indented passages (over five pages from pianist John Bunch in chapter 7 for example) are worthy of uninterrupted presentation. But, instead, the book takes on the appearance of allowing guest-author manifestos where the deft touch of editing and contextualization would have strengthened the commentary. Second, Evanier is quite comfortable injecting himself into the dialogue with first-person references even when there is no advantage in doing so. Consistent reminders that “Will Friedwald told me” or “Marion Evans told me” or “Derek Boulton told me” eventually project a guise of self-involvement that Evanier’s otherwise exquisite and subtle writing does not require.
Where Evanier shines is when he amplifies issues underplayed or ignored in Bennett’s own account. This is most apparent in the discussion of Bennett’s drug abuse or the reported deal he made to buy himself free of any future mob interference. According to Evanier’s research, Bennett requested and was given a royalty advance of $600,000 from Columbia in order to pay a “release fee” to “previous management.” This is a powerful example of how driven Bennett was to secure his artistic freedom, and Evanier reliably discloses the details that the vocalist has yet to corroborate.
It’s possible an even more definitive telling of the Bennett legacy will be forthcoming in decades ahead, but for now, no one but Evanier has offered such a robust and insightful account of one of America’s greatest vocalists. All the Things You Are adroitly fills numerous historical gaps and provides a much-needed addition to the Tony Bennett biography shelf.
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Dr. Gregg Akkerman is the author of The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story (Scarecrow Press, 2012) and an associate professor of music at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg.
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