The unlikely and continuing musical journey of a lifetime … so far
Guest Column by Gregg Field, 2018 Emmy Winner: Outstanding Music Direction, “Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress – Gershwin Prize for Popular Song”I had no idea how or why as a teenager I fell in love with Tony Bennett’s music. It happened sometime in the early seventies. I was a young kid playing drums in my high school jazz band in the San Francisco east bay area with all the dreams of making it as a pro someday.
Tony Bennett would regularly appear two or three times a year at the Fairmont hotel Venetian Room in San Francisco. Whenever he was in town, I would drag my girlfriend, who would have much preferred to be at the Fillmore to Tony’s buttoned down, coat and tie concert.
There was no better place to hear Tony Bennett than in San Francisco with the morning fog and cable car bells ringing just outside the Fairmont and waiting for you at the end of the evening.
Tony’s music has always been deeply personal and the best arrangers and musicians have always supported him. Through generation after generation and all the while ignoring musical fads, he continues to sing the best of the Great American Songbook with unwavering honesty and great taste.
Sometime in the ’70s Tony recorded an album of contemporary standards with his rhythm section and orchestra that included a ballad version of Stevie’s “For Once in My Life.” I was deeply moved by everything about the track and would listen to it over and over.
Tony’s slow and languid back phrasing interpretation of “For Once in My Life” coupled with the modern, re-harmonized arrangement is a classic. I had no idea when I first heard that version that over 40 years later, the recording and arrangement would still be playing a significant role in my musical life.
The first time I actually worked with Tony was after I joined Count Basie’s band as his 24 year old drummer back in 1980. Once or twice a year, Tony would do concerts with Basie’s band and we had one coming up in Sacramento in 1981.
As fate would have it, Tony and I both ended up on the same flight flying from L.A. to Sacramento and I spent the entire flight trying to figure out what I could possibly say.
We landed and I introduced myself as Basie’s drummer. Tony asked if I needed a ride to the hotel and within minutes I found myself in the back of a limo having a one-on-one conversation. Tony said: “You know I have never driven a car.” He explained that like Duke Ellington, he would get too distracted thinking about music and it was always better to let somebody else take care of that.
The next time our musical paths crossed was after I joined Sinatra as his drummer in 1991. There was no bigger Sinatra fan than Tony. From time to time he would attend Frank’s concerts and was always warm and would say hi to Frank’s guys.
When we were making Sinatra “Duets,” the producer Phil Ramone and I would meet at the bar at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills after the sessions for a nightcap. One night Tony, who was staying at the hotel, noticed Phil and I and invited us to join him. We spent the evening together with Tony telling us story after story about his time with Frank. It was during that time we recorded “New York, New York” and a bucket list item of recording with Tony was checked off.
Twenty-four years and a lot of music later in early 2017, the Library of Congress announced that their Gershwin Prize for Popular Song was going to be awarded to Tony and the PBS special would be taped in Washington, D.C. and presented later that year.
I had worked as music director on previous Gershwin Prize specials and was asked to music produce and music direct the special for Tony.
I realized that all the time I had followed Tony from my high school days at the Fairmont through Basie and Sinatra were filled with years of knowledge I could drawn on to make for what I hoped would be the ultimate appreciation love letter.
We put together a wish list of artists to invite that included Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Chris Botti, Sheryl Crow, Wynton Marsalis, Vanessa Williams, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bruce Willis, Dwight Yoakam, Savion Glover, Michael Feinstein, Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson and a young new artist, Wé McDonald, who I had heard on “The Voice” and had recently worked with a few months earlier on the Apollo Theater gala.
It’s a bit of a puzzle music producing and music directing a show like this with so many artists and asking them to perform music that is not their own. It always seems to work out but it’s a challenge, especially with creating new arrangements that have to be learned and of course who gets to sing the biggest hits.
After a couple of months of getting all the song assignments agreed to, the arrangements completed and the show flow locked in, I was in Miami working on a concert ten days before the Gershwin Prize show taping when I got a text from Sheryl Crow’s manager saying that due to unforeseen circumstances Sheryl would have to bow out. This created a real problem because in addition to the solo song she was to sing, I had Sheryl and Dwight Yoakam singing a duet of “What a Wonderful World” that Tony had recorded with k.d. Lang for the finale.
My luck turned worse only a few hours later when I get another text from Dwight Yoakam’s manager that he is also going to have to bow out. I’m now left with three songs including a finale to cover with no replacements. PBS always wants us to create the most diverse show we can and they were always looking for a Latin artist to be part of the show. The problem was that the Latin Grammys was taping the day after our special in Las Vegas and virtually every Latin artist that made sense was unavailable.
By complete luck or synchronicity, I was having dinner with Gloria and Emilio Estefan the next night in Miami. The Estefans are dear friends and we have worked together many times. Throughout dinner I kept filling Gloria’s wine glass and at the just right moment told her I needed a huge favor. Would she possibly consider coming to D.C. to appear on Tony’s Gershwin Prize PBS special? She told me that she had been asked a few months before but had to turn it down due to scheduling of her Broadway play “On Your Feet.”
As it turned out her schedule had changed and she said of course she would love to join us. This was also only two weeks before she was to receive the Kennedy Center Honors award. We talked about what she might sing and Gloria suggested “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” from Gloria’s “The Standards” album, masterfully arranged by Shelly Berg.
I still needed one more artist. Early on I had asked Stevie Wonder to join, but as any who have worked with Stevie know, you may not hear back until the 11th hour. I returned back to L.A. from Miami and my phone rang the next morning and it was Stevie saying he is in.
Even more perfect!
When we were doing Tony’s 90th birthday NBC special the year before, Stevie had asked to sing “If I Ruled the World” but it had already been assigned to another artist. I suggested the idea of him doing that plus singing the duet of “What a Wonderful World” with Gloria. It was an immediate yes. Having Stevie and Gloria together lifted the show to an even higher level and they sang:
“I see trees of green,
Red roses too,
When Tony sings,
For me and you,
I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
It was the perfect ending and the audience, the musicians and especially Tony deeply felt the love and respect that was in that unforgettable moment.
There was one other unforgettable moment that brings this story full circle. I had asked the young artist from “The Voice,” Wé McDonald, to sing that amazing arrangement of Tony’s on “For Once in My Life” and she agreed. Tony’s arrangement is very slow and open and allows each word and emotion to be fully appreciated. Wé is a tiny, impish young girl with a depth and voice that comes along once in a lifetime.
Wé appeared halfway into the show following Bublé, Josh Groban and Vanessa Williams. The opening refrain of Tony’s arrangement played and Wé began to sing. She was going to take her time and you could immediately tell by her first phrase she was not afraid to let us see the vulnerability of this young girl.
As with Tony’s recording, the words were personal and Wé built her vocal riding the emotional arrangement. As she sang, she went deeper and deeper and for the audience and the musicians everything else except Wé faded away.
When she finally delivered the last line, the entire audience and Tony Bennett were on their feet, tears flowing, knowing we had all just experienced something remarkable and unforgettable.
When Wé left the stage she was so overwhelmed she began to cry and fell into the arms of her proud dad, Mac. I can only imagine the pressure this 17-year-old girl must have felt knowing that Bublé, Groban, Gloria… and Stevie, who wrote the song, were all there listening. I heard over and over after the concert a star was born.
A couple of months ago my wife Monica Mancini and I were in Europe when I received the news from the Gershwin Prize director Leon Knowles that I had been nominated for an Emmy for Tony’s show. I wasn’t even thinking about the awards and to say I was caught by surprise would be an understatement.
I was honored to be in the music directing category with these amazing colleagues. We all know how much sweat, tears and time go into any of these productions. Imagine finding 100 sousaphone players for example for Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show. Adam Blackstone should have won just for having to herd all those cats.
One last thought…
I never understood at the time why as a 16-year old high school drummer I was so drawn to Tony Bennett. I tend to believe there is sometimes more going on than meets the eye and that quite possibly I was unconsciously picking up on a lifetime of Tony Bennett experiences that had already happened before I lived them.
Makes fodder for thinking about all of the things we’re drawn to now and where they are leading us.
Really loving Alejandro Sanz’s music and a great Rioja these days. I’m thinking Spain…