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Arts & Entertainment

Tony’s turn

SUNDAY, NOV. 18, 2007

Frank Sinatra called Tony Bennett “the best saloon singer in the world.” Bing Crosby called Bennett “the best singer I ever heard.”

Frank and Bing are part of the Fox Theater’s history (they both appeared there many decades ago), yet on Monday night, the third member of that triumvirate becomes part of the Fox’s spiffed-up present.

Bennett’s incredible longevity and late-career popularity cannot be attributed to mere luck. The man born as Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens, N.Y., has always taken good care of his instrument – his voice – and that meticulousness is now paying off at age 81.

During an interview in 1992 in a dressing room at the Spokane Opera House (now the INB Performing Arts Center), Bennett demonstrated his daily vocal exercises for a reporter and photographer.

“Using bel canto, your voice stays healthy,” he said, referring to the Italian operatic vocal technique.

He has always been known for his overall strength and stamina as well. When he cancelled a show in 1991 because of a chest cold, it was the first singing engagement he had cancelled in 45 years.

When he turned 80 last year, he told interviewers it was the “best time in my life.” Now that he’s 81, things just keep getting better. His TV special, “Tony Bennett: An American Classic,” won seven Emmy awards this year. He has appeared on “MTV Unplugged” and has recently collaborated with the Dixie Chicks and John Legend.

His surge in popularity over the last two decades is as ironic as it is remarkable, because it stems from the same attributes which knocked his songs off the Top 40 charts: His unwillingness to compromise.

In 1965, with the Beatles and Rolling Stones dominating the charts, his music suddenly went out of style. After 13 Top 40 hits, he found himself off the radio. Yet he continued to sing the kinds of songs he believed in. If radio no longer played it, fine.

Yet in the 1980s, something interesting happened. People rediscovered his music – and young people discovered it for the first time – largely because of the sheer quality of the material he chose. While the world was out seeking novelty, Bennett just kept seeking out good songs, from both old and new composers. He sang art songs, little-known songs from Broadway shows and new songs that struck him as honest, true and composed with sufficient craft.

Bennett had always prided himself on being able to judge a song’s quality. When he was a kid in New York, he said he remembered walking in front of the Brill Building, the famed songwriter’s headquarters.

“I heard two songwriters standing there saying, ‘If a guy could pick a song, he’d make a million dollars.’ I said to myself, ‘I can do that. I know how to do that,’ ” said Bennett, during that Opera House interview.

For evidence, you need only look at a list of the songs that he first introduced, which went on to become standards: “Blue Velvet,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Just in Time,” “In the Middle of an Island,” “The Good Life” and “I Wanna Be Around.”

He was famously wrong about one song. He originally put “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” on the B side of a single because he thought the other side, “Once Upon a Time” was stronger. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” became a huge hit and his signature tune to this day. (In Bennett’s defense, “Once Upon a Time,” was also a heck of a song and remains part of his core repertoire.)

Bennett has made numerous appearances in the Inland Northwest, including shows at the Opera House in 1979, 1980 and 1992, and at the Festival at Sandpoint in 1992.

Yet this appearance will be notable if for no other reason than it will be the second concert at the refurbished Fox, and the first non-classical concert.

Bennett is a fitting choice in many ways. He was born in 1926, the Fox was born in 1931. Both are, in many ways, better than ever.

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