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'Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song' on PBS
January 12, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 3 comments

The late Ruth Brown, doubtless not alone among artists, used to say that if it were all the same to everyone else, she’d prefer to get the roses while she was still around to smell them.

That notion comes to mind while watching Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, a musical tribute that airs at 9 p.m. ET Friday on PBS (check local listings).

Bennett, who just turned 91, listens to a dozen other artists sing songs he has recorded over the years then finishes the show with three of his own.

Anyone who watches and says he doesn’t have the voice he had at 41 is missing the point. He’s 91. He’s singing. Good for him and good for all of us. This is a win all around.

By virtue both of his remarkable longevity and his affection for the American songbook, Bennett has become one of the great ambassadors for that music.

He hasn’t only sung it himself; he has helped pass its joys along to younger artists with whom he has performed, including the late Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga.

One of the most exhilarating things about the musical lineup for this show is that the performers are all from younger generations who have embraced this music as contemporary, not as nostalgia.

Wé McDonald, who sings “For Once In My Life,” is 18. Other performers range from Brian Stokes Mitchell, who sings “The Good Life” and “Just In Time,” to Savion Glover, who duets with Vanessa Williams on “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.”  

Fittingly, several of today’s top pop and jazz artists drop by, including Wynton Marsalis and Michael Feinstein. Since Bennett’s work over the years has never been impeded by any lines between the pop and jazz genres that both inform the Great American Songbook, this nicely reflects his legacy.

The songs, interestingly, aren’t primarily from the 1930s, but from later eras where newer writers were working in that classic style. So while Gloria Estefan sings “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” we also have her dueting with Stevie Wonder on “What a Wonderful World.”

The prize presentation itself is rather brief, as are Bennett’s remarks. His closing point is that he has performed all over the world and he has never heard a musical culture as rich as America’s.

Between musical numbers, this special also includes a brief video biography. Bennett talks about his childhood in Astoria, Queens, and how his father insisted on living in a mixed neighborhood, not an Italian neighborhood because he wanted the cultural diversity.

He also recalls how his older brother John was regarded as the potential musical star in the family, but that John wanted nothing to do with fame or show business. When he dropped the torch, young Anthony was quite happy to pick it up.

The real triumph of this show, in any case, is that neither Bennett nor the music he has sung for 75 years feels like the sound of the past. The age of the songs makes them feel sturdy, not old, and the same might be said of Tony Bennett.

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We McDonald hit it out of the park. What a voice! Perfect song, sung perfectly. I had tears in my eyes...just beautiful. Wish I could buy it!! Thank you for so many beautiful songs.
Jan 14, 2018   |  Reply
Theresa DeLuise Ryan
Wonderful songs and singers. I wish there were more programs with the beautiful songs and dancing that we saw last nite. Love Tony Bennett and admire his talent both as a singer and artist
Jan 13, 2018   |  Reply
Leslieann seegobin
Memorable I wish the feeling could last forever.
Jan 13, 2018   |  Reply
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