I recently heard on the radio a short snippet of Tony Bennett being interviewed. He’s just about to turn 94 and he’s still singing and performing. The man is a living legend. Twenty years ago I met him in the wings of the Lyric Theatre. I was his support act for the Sydney leg of his Australian tour.
How Did I Get The Gig?
Like so many things in life, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know and I knew Marc Christowski. He is worthy of his own blog post, but in brief, Marc is a music promoter with whom I had ties that date back to 1982. He was one of the people behind the Tony Bennett tour. One day he rang me up and asked, “How would you like to open for Tony Bennett?”
There is no denying that it was an exciting and memorable experience. Tony Bennett did two shows at The Lyric Theatre at Star City Casino. I was the support act on both nights. I had recently released my jazz album so this gave me the opportunity to perform some of my originals to a large audience.
Meeting Tony Bennett
On the first night, I took my band out on stage and we performed our thirty minute set. When I came off stage I saw this little old man shuffling around the backstage area. I thought to myself, “That’s Tony Bennett! I’ve got to say hello”.
I knew that he studied painting, and I myself had spent four year in art school, so I thought talking about his art making would be a good topic. He complemented me on my singing and my band and then we talked about his painting in watercolours. He said, “Here I am, 73 years of age, and I’m trying to juggle two careers!”.
He was so softly spoken and such a classic gentleman. His humility was definitely something that stood out. But, while I was talking to him, I was quietly thinking to myself, “How is this little old man going to perform in front of all of those people? He’s so quiet and reserved and looks… so frail”. The impression he gave backstage would soon be annihilated.
Tony Bennett The Performer
The best part of doing the Tony Bennett support gig was getting front row seats for two consecutive shows. I had the opportunity to watch and study this legendary entertainer for two nights running. It was like watching a magician. The first night I watched him weave his magic I was mesmerised. The second night, however, I could start to see how he did his magic.
When he sang, he smiled at certain people in the audience. He singled people out and gave little winks and nods, as if he was saying, “Hey, how ya doin’? Glad you could make it along tonight”. I thought, “How does he recognise all those people from the stage?”. On the second night, I had this in the back of my mind. But, when I looked out at the audience, I couldn’t see a thing. The stage lights shone straight into my eyes. All I could see blackness. Then the penny dropped. He couldn’t see anyone either! This guy is just an absolute master of stage craft. He created an illusion that looked so real.
A Master Of The Stage
The most memorable part of Tony Bennett’s performance was his rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon”. He looked up at the sound desk operator and said, “Hey Jimmy, turn off the PA and turn up the house lights”. The lights went on and then Tony stood on the front of the stage and belted out “Fly Me To The Moon” completely acoustically. I was flawed. An hour prior, I was doubting that this old guy still had it in him. Then… WHAM! Take that! The quintessential old school performer sang to two thousand people completely un-amplified.
On the first night, Marc Christowski (who I mentioned earlier) said, “Slide! You’ve got to be introduced onto the stage!” He made a big deal about it. The stage manager came by and asked, “Are you guys ready to go on?” We confirmed. When the house lights dimmed. Marc grabbed the back stage microphone, introduced us to the audience and on we went.
On the second night, we were set to go on. I confirmed with the stage manager that we were ready. But then I thought, “Who’s going to announce us?” Marc was sitting out in the audience. So I grabbed the back stage microphone and spoke using my deepest radio-voice, “Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this evening’s performance by Mr Tony Bennett. But first, please welcome to the stage, tonight’s support act, Slide McBride”. Then we walked out onto the stage. Yes… I announced myself!
Something even funnier...
In my band, I had a young up and coming pianist, Matt Baker. He was about 20 years old and very excited to be included. On the second night, I took along my Tony Bennett CD’s to get autographed. Matt wanted to meet Tony, so tagged along with me. The three of us chatted while Tony signed my CD’s, then Matt said to Tony, “Hey Tony, I’m going to New York in about six weeks time. How about we hook up and hang out?” Tony started coughing, and then politely replied, “ah…yeah… sure. Call my office when you get into town, and we’ll see what we can arrange”. Then he excused himself.
Matt went to New York. I saw him about a year later back in Sydney. I said to him, “So, did you end up hanging out with Tony Bennett?” To this question, Matt responded with, “You know…I kept calling Tony’s office. They told me he remembered me, but… you know what? We just couldn’t seem to hook up. He always had something else on!”
I opened for Tony Bennett, twice. I met and chatted with Tony Bennett. I had front row seats watching him perform for two nights running. I got to perform for two nights in front of an audience of two thousand people. I was the envy of a whole lot of Sydney jazz singers. And then the following morning at 8:20am, I was back to giving a euphonium lesson to a high school student who had never heard of Tony Bennett. “O’kay… now let’s try that bar again. Don’t forget the F-sharp this time… second valve, not first valve…”
Read about when I played at Bob Hawke’s 80th Birthday Party – https://slidemcbride.com/bob-hawkes-80th-birthday-party/
Read about my close encounter with the Queen – https://slidemcbride.com/my-close-encounter-with-the-queen/
Read about taking trumpet lessons – https://slidemcbride.com/trumpet-lessons-in-the-inner-west-sydney-n-s-w/
Read about the amazing ukulele player, Sho Humphries – http://www.sugarmanslim.com/amazing-ukulele-players-sho-humphries/
Read about the amazing ukulele duo, Toast Garden – http://www.sugarmanslim.com/amazing-ukulele-players-toast-garden/