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A Look at Tony Bennett by Joe McNally

LIFE recently came out with a beautiful , singer and gentleman extraordinaire.

Tony’s amazing career broke through many barriers, including those of anticipated longevity, the vibrance of an ongoing fan base, and the cultivation of new fans via innovative duets with a wonderfully eclectic group of collaborators from KD Lang to Lady Gaga. He remains vital and popular now, at the age of 88, singing and touring with the energy and dash of a youngster. This lovely hardcover is a fitting tribute to a talented man with a wonderfully big heart and an equally big voice.

I’m very proud to have some of my pictorial efforts included in this book, including the back cover. LIFE dove into my archive a bit, and we found some stuff, previously unpublished, that now will see ink on paper for the first time. Such as the shot up top, with the Queensboro Bridge in the background. Tony, back in the neighborhood, in Queens, having a cup at a local coffee shop.

Also, below, Tony on the subway. Down home guy, a kid from Queens who made it big.

Here on the subway, I’m actually channeling my mentor at the New York Daily News, Danny Farrell. He was friends with Bing Crosby, and followed him around one day as Bing took the train out to play the horses at Aqueduct Race Track. I asked Tony if we could head to Astoria on the subway, and he was all for it.

His old neighborhood is still in his blood, and he thoroughly enjoyed walking around. Below, he sits on a stoop with his son, Danny, who manages his dad’s career.

And of course, there is the bridge. The connection to the bright lights of Manhattan, and the chance for stardom that lived in the midst of all those lights.

It was cold out there by the river, and it was the only time Tony asked for quickness on my part. Cold, wintry air is the nemesis of a singing voice, and I moved fast. I was pre-lit, waiting for him, soft box to camera left, and a hard flash, green gelled, clamped to the street light, away from camera, so you can’t see that it’s the thing that is creating the pool of light around the pole, not the actual light. The green gels are part of the correction factor for the funky colors of the cityscape and the corollary magenta filter on the lens, filtering out the green cast, adds some red to the sky.

Of course, while being true to his roots, Tony also moves easily, with grace and charm, through all the backstage magic and mirrors of being an entertainer. Below he signs autographs, as he gets ready to go onstage.

Shot the above in San Francisco, where Tony was performing. He was accompanied by his lovely wife, Susan, so I suggested the obvious thing, given his singing history. Would you both come with me for a picture out by the Golden Gate Bridge? And it became a wonderful portrait.

I asked Tony to keep hanging onto Susan, which he was truly happy to do. Then, later that night, I was photographing him performing from the back of the theater, and he stopped his performance. (He never does that. His shows run like clockwork.)

He looked down at his shoes, and noticed there was mud on them. He said to the audience something along the lines of, “I’ve never done this before during a show, but I just noticed I’ve got mud on my shoes. I went to the Golden Gate Bridge earlier today with a LIFE photographer, and walked around and now my shoes are a mess.”

He reached down and quickly rubbed the mud off his shoes, laughing about it as he did it. The audience was right with him, appreciating the humanity of this little break in the action. From the back of the theater, in the darkness, I had to smile. Photographers. Always gettin’ mud on people’s shoes.

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