He was just a teen idol, a dreamboat derided by adult critics as ”almost a parody — pure screaming agony.” Now, 40 years and 90 albums later, Tony Bennett is not merely dear to retired bobbysoxers everywhere; he has emerged as a beloved icon to the latest generation of young music fans. It’s the damnedest thing: There he was at the MTV Video Music Awards last month, beaming triumphantly on the same stage as Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They can only pray they’ll seem as cool as Bennett in another 40 years.
What is it about this awkward, craggy-looking, 67-year-old warbler that endears him to generations of music fans who can agree on absolutely nothing else? His new album, Steppin’ Out (Columbia), offers lots of answers.
To be blunt, the simple fact that Tony Bennett is still recording — and for a major label — has everything to do with his current popularity. Plenty of equally wonderful singers in the jazz-pop tradition (such as Chris Connor, Jon Hendricks, and Carmen McRea) are rarely recorded anymore, so young listeners just don’t get exposed to them. Others (Mel Tormé, Rosemary Clooney, and Joe Williams) only make it into the studio occasionally for smaller labels. And the popular giants (Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra) are either gone now or rarely active as recording artists. (Sinatra is currently making his first album in 10 years, a collection of duet versions of his old hits, performed with Barbra Streisand, Luther Vandross, and others.) That leaves Bennett virtually alone as a creative, high-profile figure in the slowly narrowing Tin Pan Alley spotlight.
He’s certainly earned his place there. Always a conscientious and disciplined craftsman, Bennett has brought a lifetime of care and know-how to his late-career work. And he may never make another album more exquisitely matched to his personal traits — his refined (if parochial) tastes, his irrepressible effervescence, his almost childlike emotional openness — than Steppin’ Out. Ironically, the album is designed as a tribute to another performer: Fred Astaire. But the premise isn’t as kooky as it sounds. Astaire’s charmingly buoyant voice could have made him a major singing star if his feet hadn’t gotten all the attention.
This is the second time that Bennett has saluted a fellow singer — something few other singers have done before, perhaps because it might seem self-diminishing — and his extraordinary, almost subversively anti-show-biz humility serves him well as an artist. If Perfectly Frank was a nearly confessional testament to where Bennett came from (Sinatra’s shadow), Steppin’ Out is a happy declaration of what he does best (dance with his voice). He has always been the downright cheeriest of pop vocalists, the swinging minstrel of the American repertoire, and that catalog includes few songs as blithely spirited as ”Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” ”Shine on Your Shoes,” ”Cheek to Cheek,” and ”Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
With his husky rasp, Bennett actually sounds more like Gene Kelly than Astaire. Yet even Bennett’s declining technical abilities work to his advantage here: His weathered old vocal equipment contributes a nice added dimension of maturity, particularly to froth like ”They All Laughed” and ”It Only Happens When I Dance With You.”
The one misstep is instrumental. As on Perfectly Frank, Bennett is backed by a trio led by his longtime pianist Ralph Sharon, who vamps sensitively but often comes up empty when it’s solo time. Loyalty is sweet to see, but not always to hear. Next time, Tony, call Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan, and try steppin’ up. A-