Has there ever been a more purely likable pop figure than Tony Bennett?
Throughout a career that began in the 1940s, Bennett, who died on Friday at 96, maintained one mission, amiably and unswervingly. He didn’t chase trends; he didn’t get defensive, either. Instead, he let listeners — and, in recent decades, much younger duet partners — come to him, generation after generation. He welcomed them to a repertoire of songs he admired, knew intimately and was happy to share.
Bennett sang vintage pop standards, the pre-rock canon sometimes called the Great American Songbook. They’re songs mostly about grown-up love, about courtship, yearning and fulfillment, with elegant rhymes and ingenious melodies that invite a little improvisation. He recorded with orchestras, with major jazz musicians, with big bands and, for more than 50 years, with the pianist and arranger Ralph Sharon and his trio. He was always unplugged — a simple fact that cannily recharged his career when he played “MTV Unplugged” in 1994.
Bennett’s voice made the technical challenges of his songs evaporate. As a young man, he showed off his near-operatic range and dynamic control in early recordings like “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” from 1950. But he wasn’t an old-fashioned crooner; his sense of swing was just as strong. And he understood that pure virtuosity can keep listeners at a distance. He soon revealed a grain in his voice that made it earthy and approachable, downplaying his precision. Very often, there was a jovial savvy in his phrasing; he’d punch out a note ahead of the beat, as if he couldn’t wait to sing it.
There was always an easy strength, a self-confident baritone underpinning, in his singing. When he had a big band behind him, he was easily brassy enough to hold his own. But he didn’t steamroller through his songs. He was ever attentive to lyrics. His signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” has two melodic peaks near the end. The first is on the line “When I come home”; he sustains “home” and tapers it off with longing in his vibrato, as if he’s feeling the distance. Soon afterward comes “Your golden sun will shine for me,” and he sings “sun” as if he knows he’ll be basking in it.
Bennett’s long, long career had its share of commercial ups and downs and transient record-company pressures. As the 1960s ended, he was persuaded to record recent pop hits on the album “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!,” though he maintained some dignity by putting lush orchestral arrangements behind songs like George Harrison’s “Something.”
After changing labels — and, in the mid-1970s, starting his own short-lived but artistically rewarding label, Improv — Bennett returned to what he did best: singing standards with musicians who brought out their jazz possibilities. Two albums he made with the harmony-probing pianist Bill Evans — “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album” (1975) and “Together Again” (1977), both just piano-and-voice duets — are luminous testaments to the way Bennett never took familiar songs for granted.
He was 67 when he recorded “MTV Unplugged” with Sharon’s trio and a guest appearance by Elvis Costello. It was a shrewd and satisfying move; Bennett became pop’s cool grandpa. Rock-hating Grammy voters seized their chance to give him his second album of the year award (after “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), and current rock and pop performers embraced the chance to sing with him and learn from him. Duet albums (with K.D. Lang, Diana Krall and Lady Gaga) and individual duet tracks (with, among many others, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Bono, Christina Aguilera, Queen Latifah and Amy Winehouse) made clear how admired, durable, companionable and game he was; even the awkward moments are endearing.
In later years, as his voice lowered and thickened, Bennett used those qualities to bring out mature perspectives. The slow-motion version of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” that appears on the 2007 compilation, “Sings the American Songbook, Vol. 1,” is latter-day Bennett: a little raspy, a little tremulous and gloriously fond, an affirmation not only of “tonight” but of a longtime love. There’s a rueful chuckle as he sings, “That laugh that wrinkles your nose/Touches my foolish heart.” Those lyrics were written in 1936, and Bennett was still listening through every line, still getting closer to the song.