I shook the hand of “the best singer in the business.”
That’s a bold claim that was brought to mind while watching the Frank Sinatra 100th Birthday Tribute televised last night. No, I never shook Sinatra’s hand. Nonetheless, it was something he said in the 1960s that supports my claim today. Back then, I’d hear an occasional Sinatra song on the radio or see him perform on a late night variety show. Was he egotistical enough to claim the title “best singer in the business” for himself? He certainly had the swagger, the impeccably tailored suits and, most importantly, the talent that had earned him nicknames like “The Voice,” “Chairman of the Board” and “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” But he wasn’t referring to himself, even though he perhaps really was the best. He was talking about Tony Bennett. Sinatra had once said of Bennett, “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business.”
Sylvia and I saw Tony Bennett perform with Diana Krall at Ravinia on their “Two for the Road” tour during the summer of 2000. By that time, having known his real name was Anthony Dominick Benedetto, we’d begun referring to him as “Uncle Tony.” Before the Ravinia concert I’d only seen him perform on television, including an appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1994. For my birthday later that year, I scored a CD soundtrack recording of the MTV show. It won a Grammy the following year in 1995.
When his autobiography, The Good Life, was published in 1998, I wanted an autographed first edition. Luckily for me, Uncle Tony was appearing at a Barnes & Noble bookstore signing event nearby. The line waiting to buy his book from one of several tables stacked high didn’t appear nearly as long as the line that coiled around the store aisles, fans like me pursuing an autograph. A sales clerk handed me a book as I completed signing the credit card receipt. Then I joined the slow-moving snake of shuffling feet winding their way around bookshelves to a low platform where Tony Bennett was signing autographs, flanked by men in dark glasses looking like Secret Service agents.
He appeared almost trance-like until, catching him off guard, I greeted him in Italian, “Zi’ntonio! Come stai?” His eyes blinked a couple of times, then he smiled broadly and responded, “Sta bene!” He signed my book as well as the MTV Unplugged CD I’d brought along. Looking me in the eye he said, “That Unplugged CD is my favorite recording.” I replied that it was my favorite too as he grasped my extended hand.
So, I’d have to agree. Uncle Tony is the best singer in the business. Just ask the Chairman of the Board.