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Monday, January 21, 2019

Send in the Crooners

From the Vault Dept.: I discovered Rosemary Clooney during her 1977 tour with Bing Crosby, when they performed at what was then the Uris Theatre in New York. Tony Bennett’s Greatest Hits was a fixture on my parents’ turntable, so at the age of six I could lip-sync to “Rags to Riches.” I saw each of them perform individually several times over the years, but here’s an account of a joint appearance at the now-demolished Coliseum in Latham, NY, in 1986.


IT WOULD BE HARD TO FIND a pop-singer pairing more felicitous than Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, who packed the Coliseum Theatre Tuesday night.

Bennett and Clooney in 1991
Both have justifiable claims on the elusive term “song stylist”; both have impeccable taste in songs. Both survived rocky trips through the past two decades and emerged with followings that includes many younger faces.

Clooney took the stage for the first half with “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” sung to the swinging drive of pianist John Oddo, who plays in Woody Herman’s band. Oddo wrote most of the arrangements for Clooney’s songs. A large, locally contracted orchestra played them with zest
and polish.

An Ira Gershwin set included “I Can’t Get Started” (music by Vernon Duke) and brother George’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Strike up the Band.” Cole Porter’s “Why Shouldn’t I?” had a tasteful Oddo solo for accompaniment and, with the orchestra, Clooney reprised one of her biggest hits with “Hey There.”

Clooney’s voice just gets better and better. It’s not the silky pop voice she had 30 years ago, which is just as well: she’s been freed to explore the realm of styling, which is where her talent really lies. She appreciates fine lyrics. Her predilection for Porter, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, and the like proves that. And she knows how to move those lyrics around the game-plan of the melody like the beat jazz artists.

“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is a Rodgers and Hart song (from “Pal Joey”) that, as Clooney pointed out, is as racy as anything being complained about today. “By Myself” featured a Nelson Riddle chart; a Berlin set that followed included “It’s a Lovely Day,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “I Got Lost In His Arms” and “What’ll I Do?”

She paid tribute to Fred Astaire with “Cheek to Cheek” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and, continuing with the inexhaustible Berlin library, a rousing, full-orchestra “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

The late Johnny Mercer was another of her lyricist favorites and a posthumous-lyric setting by Barry Manilow of “When October Comes” displayed a gorgeous Oddo chart lushly appointed with horns and harp. Clooney closed with “Come on-a My House,” a William Saroyan atrocity that Mitch Miller hung on her for a freakish hit in 1951. Too bad she feels compelled to drag that one around: it sticks out from such a tasteful set. She’s just not the girl singer who recorded it way back when and she’s definitely outgrown it.

The Tony Bennett who recorded “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is still very evident. Like Clooney, he’s a belter, and he also has a trademark gravelly sound. When Bennett sings a ballad, he takes listeners to 3 a.m. in a smoke-filled saloon.

The Bennett stage presence must be the most dynamic in the business. He comes out with 220-volt power; he grins and waves and shakes hands with an energetic sincerity he’s been displaying for years. He wants the audience to know he’s no different from them. And he can command the stage with the easy manner of someone singing in your living room.

“I wanted to bring you the finest American popular songs I could think of,” he said after his intro set (“S’Wonderful,” “Watch What Happens”), “so I’d like to start with the Gershwins.” With a simple lyric change we got “The Girl I Love” in an arrangement that also allowed the orchestra to kick into gear.

And as long as there has been Bennett, it seems, there has been Ralph Sharon at the piano. This tiny, balding man looks like a dour foreclosure agent but plays with charm and sensitivity, reminiscent of a laid-back Oscar Peterson.

Gus Kahn, Jerome Kern, and Berlin were represented with, respectively, “It Had to Be You,” “Yesterdays,” and I Got Lost in Her Arms.” As the large circular stage revolved slowly, Bennett danced from one spot to another, now at the edge with his arms outstretched, now beside the orchestra, swinging his arms to the rhythm.

He presented selections from his new CBS album, “The Art of Excellence,” which features “all young songwriters, all new songs. Here’s one by a young songwriter named Fred Astaire.” With an impish smile, he sang “City of the Angels,” Astaire’s tribute to Loa Angeles. Also part of the set were Michel l.egrand’s “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” a poignant ballad, and James Taylor’s “Everybody Gets the Blues.”

Of course there was a “hits” sequence, beginning with Jule Styne’s “Just in Time.” “Don’t Get around Much Anymore” segued into a Duke Ellington tribute that included Sharon solos on “In a Sentimental Mood” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and Bennett’s touching vocal of “Sophisticated Lady.”

And then, of course, it was “San Francisco,” leading to the up-tempo finale of “I Want to Be Around to Pick up the Pieces.” The audience brought him back for an encore of Cole Porter’s “All of You.”

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 10 July 1986

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