This week I review a new release from everyone's favorite lounge singer as well as some Christmas albums.
Tony Bennett - "Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964"
There have been a slew of live Frank Sinatra recordings released in the past 15 years, all showcasing the Chairman of the Board in his natural element. A few of them were recorded in Vegas, also his - and the fabled Rat Pack's - natural environment.
But Tony Bennett was in demand, also, a young singer who had a fluke hit with the Hank Williams-penned "Cold, Cold Heart," that began a career that continues to this day. But it was the romantic, monster hit "I Left My Heart (in San Francisco)" that really propelled Tony into Vegasland - AKA "mobsterland" - and the fact he was buddies with Sinatra, who basically ruled the city, didn't hurt, either.
Bennett was a different kind of singer than Sinatra, although they often covered the same ground and both referred to themselves as "saloon singers." Bennett didn't quite have the same intensity as Sinatra, was about 10 years younger and seemed approachable, while Sinatra seemed far too god-like and at times, menacing, to just pull up a chair and talk to.
But Bennett also was a fine singer with a flair and an empathy for jazz, and he was coming into his own in the 1960s as well. But while Sinatra sometimes chased pop trends in the 1960s - and not without some success - Bennett kept his nose firmly inside the Great American Songbook.
On Oct. 8 Sony/Legacy releases Bennett's "Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964" as a stand-alone album. Previously it was included in Legacy's Complete Tony Bennett collection released in 2010, but now it's available as a single CD.
And it took long enough to release, as Columbia recorded the album and then shelved it for decades. During the introduction it's announced the album was being recorded for release, but it never was. Who knows why, although I have my suspicions.
The set reeks of that live, Las Vegas vibe, which is hard to pin down, but I can always "feel" it on records recorded there.
It's the tinkling of glasses in the background, the murmer of crowd noise and the bands play generally looser than at other venues. Sinatra's double live album at the Sands with the Count Basie band released in 1966 has that same feeling, like maybe the band was living it up and feeling groovy after a couple of highballs. For whatever reason, it's like you're transported back in time to a place slightly dangerous, but a hell of a lot of fun. Bennett's set here isn't the best live document of his around, and he sings looser than I'm used to hearing him. But I dig the vibe, and Bennett's set includes all the prerequisite Vegas tunes crooners had to sing back then - most of them made famous by Old Blue Eyes - such as "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" and "Chicago (That Toodlin' Town)" - maybe that one was for the homesick gangsters in the audience - but once Bennett warms up it's definitely his show all the way, with a beautiful version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars," "From This Moment On" and a sublime "I Want to Be Around."
This was the age before Pro-Tooled creations, and Bennett sings like a human being - there's no autotuning here, folks. But what is here in spades is Tony's pure joy of singing and heartwarming demeanor that few singers possessed in a time when giants roamed the Earth. Tony swings.
Legacy's classic Christmas album series, featuring CDs by Alabama, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Barbara Streisand and Martina McBride and Andy Williams.
Well, it's getting near the end of September, and that means it's time for Legacy to go into the archives and pull together Christmas collections by the roster of artists under the Sony dynasty.
This year's crop is pretty good with a few so-sos and a few real ringers. I didn't ask to review all of them, because I really don't care for Alabama or McBride, although I probably should have requested the Streisand. I still think I got the cream of the crop, with the real winner being the Johnny Cash, who sings and narrates a slew of Christmas songs - many with the Carter family and June Carter Cash - that aren't at all cliche, are fun and really dig into Cash's truly pious heart. Totally a worthwhile listen.
Andy Williams performs the classic tunes, but if there's anyone I would want to hear singing them, it's Williams - a crooner with a wonderful, warm tone. The Tammy Wynette/George Jones set also is a lot of fun, as these two bring a real classic country feel and sass to a collection that includes secular and the sacred. The Gladys Knight set also is a joy, and she gets a chance to sing seriously and display her prodigious gospel chops.
The essential series are pretty good deals for not a lot of bucks and are set to be released on Oct. 8.
(Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)