In Memoriam, McDonalds, Memories, Personal Story

Memories of McDonald’s Part Six: Chris and I

April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

We used to say that there were a lot of “legends in McDonaldian folklore” but very few ‘living legends’. ‘Living legend’ tended to refer to someone who had been through the wars in some way but was still working there. I was a living legend. After being on the outs for fourteen months with store manger Diane over the freezer key incident (see part 3) and after watching all my friends leave for better jobs and finding myself an old man of 20 working with 16-year-old’s, I was referred to as a ‘living legend’ (by myself mostly). Chris was another living legend.

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One of the first times I ever heard about Chris was when he was off on a leave of absence. Rumours were flying about what had happened to him but it was generally understood that Chris had his struggles, the effects of which required him to take regular medication. Unfortunately, taking these meds would often leave him in desperate need of sleep by shift’s end.

Due to his condition or not, he was also very particular about his job. He sometimes appeared somewhat groggy at the start of his shift at 11 pm and he would just put his head down and work. Other times, though, he was very animated, talking and laughing with the kids closing (Chris was in his 30’s) and going like a madman. “Can’t talk, I’m behind!”, became a running joke with him. He always felt like he was running behind and had to go, go, go to catch up. One night, he half-jokingly said to Manager Julie “I’m a little behind” and bent down to work on something. Julie, looking quickly away from Chris’ ‘plumber’s crack’, quipped “a little behind?!”. Us guys joined in: “Hey, Chris! That’s a good place for my broom. Here, hold this!”.

I got to know Chris and learned he was a great guy. We would talk music a lot. We loved the same type of music and his folks had been born in Liverpool so we had the Beatles in common. We would smoke out on the patio together sometimes. He was particular in his job which teen-aged kids often could not understand. They’d be telling him to slow down and relax, don’t be grumpy but what kids in general don’t realize is that when you do the same job night after night you come to have a ‘way’ and anything that gets in the way of doing your job is a speed bump, a hassle. So he was pretty particular and his meds would do a number on him sometimes but generally he was the placid, likable guy working on one of the fryers with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

I think I was about 22 years old and living on my own. I worked part time at McDonald’s with 16-year-old’s and part time at a department store with 50-year-old’s. I wore a suit and sold lamps and rugs – basically the opposite of McDonald’s. When I got fired from the department store, I asked McDonald’s if they could up my hours. I had to go full time there now. Even with the two jobs, I once added up my income and expenses and found I was below the technical definition of the ‘poverty line’. They were good enough to give me more hours and eventually I found myself with a regular shift during the day. My buddy, Hash Man, also had one at that time and we would spend the day setting traps for each other, pranking each other. When one of us would inadvertently grab a knife that had pizza sauce all over the handle, the other would yell “sabotage!!” Then the full time midnights position of maintenance came open and they offered it to me. This meant I’d be working overnight, Sunday night to Thursday night, locked in the place every night with my buddy, Chris. It’s a big change in your life, going to midnights, but I needed the money so I accepted. I had been a part-timer for 7 years which gave me top seniority among all the part-timers there. I was never going to be a manager so all I had was my tenure – to this day I tend to respect longevity over a person’s position in a company.

I got a new uniform which at that time was a sharp looking deep red colored button up shirt and blue work pants. The pants came ‘one length fits all’ and they were super long. One night before work, I was standing back by the upstairs office and grabbed an exacto knife. I lifted one foot and cut the pant leg to size, then did the other one. Some of the kids working that night laughed and shook their heads – they had a story now about the ‘living legend’. I went to the bargain store and bought the cheapest velcro running shoes they had. Black, had to be black. They were lame but I didn’t care; they were for work. This new position also came with enrollment in the benefits package. This was amazing – I hadn’t had any sort of medical coverage for a few years. There was at that time four different levels of coverage you could sign up for. The biggest and most expensive provided coverage for families and the lowest was very basic. I signed up for one of the ones in the middle. They were called, seriously, The Big Mac Plan, The Quarter Pounder Plan, The Hamburger Plan and The Fry Plan. We would joke that I took The Orange Drink Plan – one glass of that gross orange beverage per shift. Now I was a ‘full-timer’.

A quick personal note: the years I worked midnights at McDonald’s were years I spent alone. At least that’s how I remember them. My friends were going to college, spending time with girlfriends, working other jobs and generally being awake and active in the daytime and sleeping at night. Everything about me was the opposite. Pretty much a dead end job (the pay raise to full-time bumped me up to $9-something an hour) that I would walk to in the darkness and walk home from in the darkness. I remember walking to work on a Sunday night past people’s homes with lights on in the living room thinking how everyone is settling down for a relaxing Sunday night after a weekend and getting ready for another work week. While this niceness was going on, I was walking to McDonald’s where I would sweep and mop the floor. Friday mornings I would be determined to have a normal weekend which entailed abruptly reversing my sleep habits which of course is hard. Before leaving work in the morning I would nuke up a small container of milk and drink it warm to help me sleep. I would often have to hold my nose to drink it – and often have to run home to get on the toilet, it would have that effect on me. I would try to sleep during the day Friday, get up around 2 or 3 and try to function. Didn’t always work. And most times I’d come home from work Friday morning and wouldn’t see anybody – except my cat, Reef, – until going back to work Sunday night. I would say, only half-jokingly, that I could die one Friday morning (maybe from the warm milk) and no one would know until I didn’t show up for work on Sunday. On the bright side, I quit smoking while on midnights. My body must have been so messed up that smoking suddenly became repugnant to me – it ‘tasted’ different’ – so I abruptly quit after only six years as a smoker.

Chris and I became co-workers and good buddies. I would go into work Sunday night never sure of the mood he’d be in. Chris was in the same boat I was in when it came to sleep on the weekends. If he’d managed his sleep well enough over the last two days, he’d be his normal jovial self. Much the same as me, really. We’d get to work and go hard until the closers left. Now, to get anything even remotely negative out of the way, yes; we both got on each others nerves sometimes. I remember thinking at the time and later on in life that you can be great friends with someone but the real test is to be locked in a building all night alone with that person. So, yeah, sometimes we got frustrated with each other but generally things were great.

We both got to be very good at our jobs, as one would expect. Chris had been doing his job for years and could do it in his sleep – as he often did. My job was a lot less challenging and required a lot less knowledge and skills than Chris’ did. The most advanced piece of machinery I used was that dust pan with the long handle. If I was ever asked to fix something I would always say “My job is ‘maintenance’ as in ‘cleaning’ not ‘maintenance’ as in ‘fixing'”. But I got in to a routine and could work swiftly and effectively. It helped that by this time I had learned to use a plunger (see Part Five). Mopping for Chris and I became an artistic expression. The way you wielded the mop could be graceful – “like Fred Astaire” I would say. (The kids would say “who?”) We had learned the ‘deep cuts’ of mopping like gathering debris you had not picked up with the broom and we were particular about our mop heads – the ends definitely had to be tied and not loose. One morning years earlier, shortly after I started at McDonald’s, I was out mopping the deck. My dad stopped by to see how I was doing. He watched me mop, awkwardly moving the mop forwards and backwards. He took the mop off me and showed me the proper way, swinging it from side to side. Years later when I began working in the auto industry I took great delight in mopping the floors of the plant. I would joke “you can take the boy out of McDonald’s but you can’t take the McDonald’s out of the boy”. Once when I was asked to mop I said ‘sure’ and made a big deal of how McDonald’s had made me a master mopper. My supervisors snickered and stood there watching me. After a few minutes I heard one turn to the other and say “That is how you mop, though. For sure”.

Chris and I eventually got things so wired that we would bust our humps for a few hours and then be able to sit down and take a break. Sometimes, a long one. I can still see us sitting in that two-person booth. One time, we spent that break watching “American Graffiti” in the crew room, using the VCR that was there to play training videos. Generally what we did though was read the newspaper. Well, I would read the paper to Chris. Toronto has several different newspapers but the most upscale one is the Globe and Mail. They had a section of their paper that they called “Social Studies”. It was a short segment that shared trivia and bits of information that would get Chris and I talking and our imaginations working. We were regularly in tears laughing. On a more somber note, we found the obituaries equally fascinating. “Gary Wells’ Death Watch”, we called it. The affluent nature of the paper meant that those that were memorialized in this section had been in life respected members of society: war veterans, inventors, politicians, business men and the like. It made for great reading.

Often, after reading the paper, Chris and I would play some Tray Ball. I would get out our tennis ball and we would knock it back and forth, tennis style, in the lobby. A call of “game on” would get the game started and any breaks in play were announced with a “game off”. Sometimes – as we were both still little boys, really – the play would get heated. One night, I think it was me that struck a particularly cracking blow that sent the ball hurtling towards a framed picture hanging in the lobby. Sure enough, the glass of the picture frame broke. “Game off!!”, Chris yelled. We were both thinking fast, though, and simply removed all of the glass – Chris cut himself – and threw it out, leaving a perfectly fine looking picture of a vase with flowers in it. Only a close look and some hard pondering would cause anyone to realize that something was different about the picture: there was no glass. No one ever noticed.

Now, I’m not sure what the statute of limitations would be here but… Every now and then – not always – we would have ourselves a little snack. It wasn’t common practice but sometimes trays of hamburger buns were left out, stacked for the next days’ use. And, sometimes, conscientious closers would do the openers a solid and have the peanut butter and jam packages already out and ready for the morning. And…sometimes…Chris and I would have us a couple of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Sometimes. What happened ALL the time, though, was I would eat a free meal before and after my shift. Remember, I was living on my own at the time and any free meal was a real bonus. It was common practice for managers to allow overnight workers to have a free meal. When I got into work around 10:30, the closing manager was cool enough to let me have a free meal. When I was done for the day at 7am, Lisa, the opening manager, let me have a free meal as well. So, for two years, I ate at McDonald’s 10 times a week.

At work, we would blast the radio all night. I was introduced to a couple of great songs I had never heard before but Chris had. “Taxi” by Harry Chapin, I had to ask him what song it was. (“‘Harry, keep the change!'”, Chris would holler) And when I heard the greatest REO Speedwagon song ever – “Roll With the Changes” – Chris had to identify it for me. We would say goodbye to each other as we left the store in the morning, often joking that we were that dog and coyote from the Warner Bros. cartoon: “G’night, George”, he’d say. “Good night, Ralph”, I’d reply. We both lived 5 minutes from the store and we walked home. Some mornings, I’d be unlocking my apartment door and the phone would be ringing. It would be Chris, with more to say. Chris and I hung out together on the outside. We listened to classic rock and drank Canadian Club. Our birthdays were a day apart. I remember going over to his apartment on a Saturday night, sitting around a bit and then heading to Kelsey’s. I was in on things when he bought the first car he’d owned in awhile. I shared his happiness when he met Peggy.

When I finally decided to leave both McDonald’s and Kitchener, Chris and I were unemotional about our parting. Of course. Shortly after I left town, Chris and Peggy decided to get married. I have to admit, I never thought this would happen to Chris. He and Peg were kind enough to invite me to their wedding, which I attended with my new girlfriend, Andrea, who would eventually become my wife. This provided me with a unique opportunity to introduce Andrea to my old friends. My adult life has had two separate acts; my time spent single in Kitchener and everything that came after I moved away: marriage, kids, the real stuff. When I reminisce about the old days, my wife can only imagine the lunacy I describe. But Chris she met, she was at his wedding with me. The fact that Andrea met Chris and Peggy strengthens my connection with my old buddy. Also at Chris’ wedding was Becky Ruby, my buddy, Ruby’s, kid sister I mentioned in Part Two. Andrea met Becky and liked her almost as much as I did. As a result, Becky’s untimely death affected my wife, as well. I was thrilled to be invited to Chris and Peggy’s wedding and was glad Andrea shared it with me. It was nice for me to know that, going forward, I could share memories of Chris with Andrea.

The memory of my two years spent working with Chris came flooding back again a few years ago when I heard that Chris had passed away. I think it was Hash Man who told me in a text. Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened. I searched for Peggy on Facebook and found her. I was again shocked to see that Chris had had children, two little girls. At first, this made me feel worse; now there was not just a widow but there were two kids with no father. However, writing this post has actually helped me feel better. The way Chris was when I knew him, he was like me. An unfulfilling job, no significant other to share life with, living almost incognito, working midnights and being somewhat out of touch with friends and family and the general pursuit of the joy of living. Then when he met Peggy – and here I’ll begin to make assumptions – things began to change. His crappy job seemed not so bad. Everything in his life began to shine a little brighter. Nothing was all that bad now, actually. Getting married, I know, is not for everybody but Chris finding love and becoming a husband gave his life new meaning and purpose. A point. Having two children, even more so. In the end, he and I both were regular Joes with not much going for us, saved by good women. You may say that having had a family makes his passing even sadder but I think it reveals the footprint he left behind, the legacy.

If he had passed away without ever meeting Peggy or having kids, then, yes, there would have been three less people to feel sadness and mourn his passing. And yet the way it happened, he left behind a woman and two girls that will always cherish his memory. Maybe his girls will get married one day and have kids themselves. And so on. Because of Chris. I miss him, as a lot of people do. Chris’ story reminds me that life is beautiful. Even when it’s sad.

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Next Up: The Dream Is Over…

Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 3

Dean Martin hit ‘legend’ status early. By the late 1960’s, his records weren’t charting anymore and he wasn’t starring in hit movies. But it didn’t matter. He performed on stage in Las Vegas and elsewhere to sold out crowds. Dino played it “drunk” and sang all the old songs and the people loved it. He gathered his celebrity friends together to put on one of his legendary “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” and the people laughed. Funniest of all was watching Dean, laughing harder than anyone. And not just at Don Rickles ripping people to shreds, either. You could believe that he was laughing mostly because he truly had it made. He could sustain a career and reap the rewards with very little effort. He just had to be himself.

The thing about Dean Martin is that he didn’t care. Now, as soon as you say that, it sounds negative. But I don’t mean to say that he had a poor attitude toward things or he was indifferent to his family and friends. When I say he didn’t care I mean that, for the most part, he wasn’t consumed with striving to attain a level of greatness in his singing or his acting. He could sing. He could sing well. He liked to sing. So, he sang. Period. And the record buying public loved it. His talent was based on ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘craft’. He had ‘a way with a song’. While making movies, he was laid back and jovial on set. When the cameras rolled, he acted naturally and his charisma shone through. But that’s not to say he wasn’t good – very good – at what he did. Watch him in his films with Jerry Lewis and you’ll see that Jerry is bang on when he talks of Dean’s comedic timing and his handling of a funny line. Not to mention the looks and expressions he could pull off in place of a spoken punch line. It all came so naturally to him. That is what is at the root of his greatness – it was all so seemingly effortless. He was so completely confident and sure of himself that he was able to simply be himself his entire career. This is what people today remember most about Dean Martin. His attitude, his coolness. He was also successful when he went looking for a stretch and played it serious in films like “The Young Lions” with method actors Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift or “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne. While making records, he could delight you with joyous recordings like “That’s Amore” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” but he could also make you close your eyes while his voice washed over you with the smoother sounds of “Once in a While” or “My One and Only Love”. With a change of sound upon moving to Reprise in the ’60’s, he could still delight listeners with a jaunty run-through of “I’m Gonna Change Everything” or make them shake their heads and sigh with the heartbreak of “Nobody’s Baby Again”.

In the interest of taking care of business, it should be noted that the last years of Dean Martin’s life were not happy ones. One of Dean’s sons was Dean Paul Martin, who was known as “Dino”. Young Dino was a noted tennis player and a minor actor. He starred in a TV series in 1985-86 called “Misfits of Science” that also starred Courtney Cox. Dino was also a pilot. He joined the California Air National Guard and rose to the rank of captain. He died in 1987 when his jet crashed into the San Bernardino Mountains, the same mountains that had claimed the life of Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly. Losing his son devastated Dean and he was truly never the same. In 1988, Frank Sinatra organized a series of reunion shows featuring himself, Dean and Sammy Davis, Jr. Frank reportedly said that the main purpose of the reunion shows was to give Dino something to do, to get him out and about, to maybe forget his troubles. But Dean’s heart was never in it. He lasted only five performances before bowing out. In the fall of 1993, Dean was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Christmas Day, 1995 of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema. He was 78.

But enough of that. We’re here to celebrate Dino’s LIFE. His legacy is remarkably full and varied. He made many great comedy films in the golden age of Hollywood with one of the greatest and most celebrated comedians that ever lived. He recorded timeless music in his early days, sprinkling lovely Italian melodies amongst gems that are the very definition of mid-century crooning. His alliances with other legends added a luster to his personality as regular joes looked at him as the ultimate ‘pally’: the perfect guy to hang out with. In a tux at Romanoff’s or a sport shirt in the clubhouse after a round of golf. He epitomized the swank Las Vegas lifestyle and aura that appealed to royalty and working stiffs the world over. With his many westerns he won over many fans of that hardy, masculine genre. Adding to this was the appeal of his style of country crooning throughout the 1960’s – just one more way he endeared himself to the majority of the adult record buying public. It seems today he is remembered for one major thing. His most lasting legacy seems to be COOL. When hip, happening people of today look back for inspiration when it comes to handling the lady, handling the cocktail, handling the situation no matter what it is – and handling it dressed to the nines – they all seem to land on Dean Martin. He may have had equals but was there ever anybody cooler than Dino? I don’t think so. As Dean’s character in “Ocean’s 11”, Sam Harmon, said: “Everywhere I go people stare at me in dumb admiration”. Yes. We do.



Stayin’ Alive: Tony Bennett

A couple of years ago I published a post I called “Stayin’ Alive” ( . It served as a tribute to certain legendary figures from different walks of life that were still alive and – for some – even still working well into their 80’s. Then 2016 happened, a year when we lost a long list of entertainers. Although I’ve only lost three from my list (Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer and Chuck Berry), as 2017 dawned I felt like I wanted to shine some light on some older entertainers. Just in case they start dying.

Tony Bennett is a good place to start. Tony Bennett is the ONLY place to start. The man and his career are both truly remarkable. Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria, Queens, New York on August 3, 1926. As of today, that makes him 90 years old. Here’s the thing, though, that I want to establish up front: in these “Stayin’ Alive” episodes, I will try to focus on those legendary personalities that continue to maintain their visibility, at least somewhat, despite their advanced ages. Here again, Bennett is the only place to start as he continues to release albums as recently as December 2016.

Tony grew up the youngest of three kids born to parents from families of Reggio Calabria, a town in rural Italy that is also the birthplace of Gianni and Donatella Versace. Tony grew up in poverty but his father, who died when Tony was 10, instilled in Tony a love of art and literature and a compassion for human suffering. Like so many others of his generation, Tony grew up listening to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. He was known in school as a caricaturist and a singer. In fact, when the Triborough Bridge – now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge; a bridge that connects Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx – opened in 1936, Tony sang and stood next to legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who patted Tony on the head. Tony began singing for money at age 13 in 1939. At this juncture we should pause to consider: Tony Bennett is still ‘singing for money’ – 78 years later. Tony also attended New York’s School of Industrial Art and considered a career as an artist.

Tony was drafted into the US Army in November of 1944 in the final stages of World War 2. In Germany, Tony saw bitter combat in cold winter conditions and escaped death several times. He was also involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. At the conclusion of the war, Tony stayed on in Germany and joined the Special Services, entertaining American troops. Dining one night with a black friend from high school, in an army that was still heavily segregated, Tony was demoted and reassigned to Graves Registration duty. He was discharged in ’46 and studied singing on the GI Bill, Bel Canto singing, a discipline that Sinatra was also a proponent of. He made a few recordings in 1949 (68 years ago!) as Joe Bari but got no love. Also in ’49, singer and actress Pearl Bailey heard Tony sing and asked him to open for her at her show to which she had also invited Bob Hope. Hope liked what he heard and took Tony on the road with him, simplifying Tony’s birth name to ‘Tony Bennett’. The next year, 1950, Tony became a proper professional singer and was signed by Mitch Miller to Columbia Records. Again, let’s stop: Bennett records for Columbia today, a working relationship that began 67 years ago.

Tony began his tenure at Columbia as a crooner of pop tunes. His earliest hits remain some of the songs that are still most closely identified with him: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “Because of You”, “Stranger in Paradise”, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Blue Velvet”. When it comes to ‘mid-century modern’ culture and style, these early recordings of Bennett’s are essential listening. As early as 1954, Bennett began to lean towards jazz and soon after hooked up with the man who would become his long-time pianist, Ralph Sharon, who wisely told Bennett that a career focused on singing sweet pop songs would be a short career. So, Bennett continued to go in a jazz direction and to record quality compositions from Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Perhaps the pinnacle of his recording career came in 1962 with his recording of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. The single only reached #19 but it spent close to a year on various other charts and increased his exposure. The album hit #5 and the single and album reached gold record status. At the Grammys that year the single won Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. It has, of course, become his signature song and was ranked #23 on a list of ‘historically significant’ recordings of the 20th century.

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Bennett continued recording quality material as an album artist into the 1970’s when the most telling episode of Bennett’s career occurred. A common method that singers would use throughout the late ’60’s and ’70’s to stay relevant in the rock era was to record the ‘hits of the day’ in their own easy listening style. Andy Williams basically spent his career doing this. Other notable artists employing this method include Mel Torme (listen to his “Sunshine Superman”), Peggy Lee (“A Hard Day’s Night”?) and maybe most infamously, Bing Crosby and his album “Hey, Jude! Hey, Bing!”. The evil Clive Davis suggested that Tony do the same. Bennett was so opposed to the idea that he became physically ill while recording these tracks. The result (“Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!”) was dreadful and Tony never revisited this genre. And this is the thing about Tony: he has always been a tireless purveyor of what’s known as “The Great American Songbook” or American popular standards. These include quality songs that, for the most part, were written in the early twentieth century and have been recorded countless times by every vocalist that operates in this idiom.

Shortly after this episode, Tony took a hiatus from Columbia and joined Verve, a predominantly jazz label. He recorded sparingly and released two quality albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans but real success evaded him at this time. The nadir of his career came in the late 1970’s. Bennett found himself without a record label, without a manager while performing virtually no concerts outside of Las Vegas. His second marriage was failing and the IRS was after him. Worst of all, he developed a cocaine addiction. An overdose almost took his life in 1979.

At this point, Tony Bennett’s story is a common one. Popular singer struggles in the rock era and turns to drugs and trades on his past successes. But also at this point, his story takes a decidedly heartfelt turn. Actually, Tony’s decisions throughout the ’80’s are a blueprint for getting a career back on track. It started with family. Nice. At the dawn of the 1980’s, Tony called his sons, Danny and Dae. Danny, a failing musician with a head for business, joined forces with his father, an immense musical talent who struggled in the business arena. Like Tom Jones with his son around this time, Tony Bennett’s son became his manager. Danny worked wonders with his father. Most importantly from a musical standpoint, Danny began to book his dad into small clubs and colleges to restore his reputation and image. By 1986, Bennett was back with Columbia Records, this time having full artistic control over his recordings.

A lot of credit has to go to Tony’s son, Danny, who simply thought that a youthful audience would appreciate his father if given a chance. Subsequently, no changes were made to Bennett’s formal appearance, song choice, singing style or musical accompaniment. He continued to be exposed to a young, hip audience with appearances on shows such as “Late Night with David Letterman”, “The Simpsons” and various MTV shows. Bennett stood out, he was different, a sixty-year-old man in a silk suit. The kids were down. It was at this time that Tony put his stamp on the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy and began what I call the ‘victory lap’. When a performer is on top of the world, the wheel tends to come around. Tastes and styles change and even true artists can fall out of favour with the public as well as with critics. But after a season, if the artist is true and genuine and has the tools and uses them well he can rise again and achieve legend status. His past career is appreciated and he performs again with fresh ideas while maintaining his classic style. Bennett stayed true to who he was as a performer and took up the banner again as the world’s predominant singer of standards.

Writing this post has made me reassess my feelings towards Tony’s recorded output since his victory lap began with the release of “The Art of Excellence” in 1986. I’ve always been a little disappointed with the themes he has explored on his albums. Each of his albums seems to be dedicated to a specific set list of tracks united by a common thread: songs associated with a certain artist or composer and endless variations on the dreaded ‘duets’ format. Too often it seemed to me to be gimmicky. And let’s face it, some themes have been decidedly ill-advised (“In the Playground”, children’s songs ‘featuring’ an appearance by Rosie O’Donnell and “Viva Duets” containing  duets with Spanish artists, most of whom are unknown in English-speaking North America). I wanted them all to be like 2004’s fine “The Art of Romance”: a small group, good songs, excellent singing. My distaste with these ‘theme’ albums stems mostly from my immense disappointment with the two duets albums with which Frank Sinatra ended his decades-long recording career. Pointless and poorly executed, Frank’s “Duets” and “Duets II” are considered pointless debaucheries by Sinatraphiles: classic Frank songs that need no new versions recorded with a baffling parade of duet partners. Compare this with the stellar final recordings of the late Johnny Cash and you lament what could have been: 80-year-old FS, on a stool, singing live with a couple instruments. So, I didn’t want to see this happen to Bennett. I mean, who needs “If I Ruled the World” with Queen Latifah? Add to this the fact that if you saw Bennett live around this time, as my wife and I did twice, you would have been delighted with the sound of his three-piece group and his impeccable and ageless chops. So, why all the gimmicks on the albums?! But here’s what I figure. Tony goes into the studio to record an album of the songs of Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, etc. with the intention of using his unique platform to let the world know what wonderful songs these artists are responsible for. After all, that has been Bennett’s thing since at least the ’60’s, carrying the banner for the great musical figures of the 20th century. Something else to consider is something I had an inkling of but I really had no idea about until I looked into it. It’s about the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. This award has been given out for the last 26 years and Bennett has won it an astounding 13 times, including one stretch when he won it 5 years running. What’s even more amazing is that since the award’s inception, Tony has released 19 albums – and 13 of them have won this award. They’ve also fared well on the charts. Tony’s last six albums have gone to #1 on the U.S. Jazz Albums chart giving him a total of 11 (of his last 19) albums to top this chart. “Duets II” and “Cheek to Cheek” both reached #1 on the Jazz Albums chart as well as the Billboard 200 chart of all pop albums. After a second look, I guess I can concede that only “The Playground” – kids songs featuring Elmo and Rosie O’Donnell, “Viva Duets” – the disposable collection featuring Latino vocalists that Bennett for the most part has little or no rapport with and “Cheek to Cheek” – his chart-topping gimmick album with the questionable talent and repulsive personality of Lady Gaga, are the ones I can say were actually bad ideas.

Bottom line: Tony Bennett has become a legend who really has no peer. And his career as a whole? Well, not even FS was topping the charts at the age of 88. He is a true survivor, still vital, active and relevant well into his 80’s. He truly deserves the accolades now, while he is still here, stayin’ alive.