Library, Star-Studded Cast Honor Tony Bennett with Gershwin Prize

November 28, 2017

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Note: This article was originally published on Friday, November 17, 2017 in the Library of Congress Gazette. It is being republished here – in its original, unedited form – with the courtesy of its author, Mark Hartsell. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco and, on Wednesday night, won them at Constitution Hall.

The Library of Congress on Wednesday bestowed its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on the beloved 91-year-old singer who, over a seven-decade career, sold tens of millions of records, won 19 Grammy Awards, collaborated with performers across genres and generations, introduced legions of new fans to old classics and earned the lifelong affection of music lovers everywhere.

“I can’t even describe how I feel – what a wonderful night for me,” Bennett said, to rousing cheers, in accepting the prize. “I’ve performed all over the world, but this is the best night I’ve ever felt on the stage. Thank you for being so wonderful.”

The celebration began Wednesday afternoon in the Jefferson Building, where Bennett visited the Gershwin exhibition and viewed items from Library collections – a display that included a fire-insurance map of his old Queens neighborhood, lyric sketches of “My Favorite Things” and a compilation of video clips that ranged from a 1952 “Toast of the Town” appearance to his 1990 turn on the “Dancin’ Homer” episode of “The Simpsons.”

That evening, the festivities moved down the Mall to Constitution Hall, where, with actor Bruce Willis as host, singers and musicians Chris Botti, Michael Bublé, Gloria Estefan, Michael Feinstein, Josh Groban, Wé McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lukas Nelson, Vanessa Williams and Stevie Wonder, along with dancer Savion Glover, performed songs most associated with Bennett.

Nelson, son of 2015 Gershwin Prize winner Willie Nelson, got things started with “Cold, Cold Heart,” a remake of the Hank Williams country classic that Bennett took to No. 1 in 1951.

That performance kicked off a string of pop standards: “The Very Thought of You” (Bublé), “The Best is Yet to Come” (Williams), “Old Devil Moon” (with Groban on vocals and Botti on trumpet), “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (Estefan), “Just In Time” (Mitchell), “For Once in My Life” (McDonald), “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (Botti), “Embraceable You” (Feinstein), “The Good Life” (Mitchell) and “Smile” (Groban).

Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis then took the stage to pay tribute to Tony Bennett, citizen – the civil rights activist who participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches, the mentor to younger performers, the music educator whose Exploring the Arts organization supports arts education in 33 schools.

“Underneath it all, central to who he is and why his voice still resonates so very strongly is that deep down in his soul, Tony Bennett believes in the very best of our country, the United States of America,” Marsalis said. “It’s clear that his family instilled in him an abiding faith in equality, and when that faith was challenged, especially in the contentious times of the 1960s, Tony Bennett proudly answered the call.”

Glover, a Tony Award-winning choreographer once described as the “best tap dancer that ever lived,” stepped in for “Steppin’ Out,” a song-and-dance duet with Williams, followed by a solo performance from Wonder of “If I Ruled the World” and a Wonder-Estefan duet on “What a Wonderful World.”

Estefan and Wonder exited, and Bennett and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden entered, accompanied onstage by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy and Reps. Gregg Harper, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Pelosi and Kevin Yoder.

“In the music world, Tony Bennett has given new meaning to the words ‘timeless’ and ‘immortal.’ … His collaborations with a variety of artists spanning seven decades, from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga, have cemented his name in music history,” Hayden said in awarding the prize. “Tony Bennett has connected with audiences of all ages and bridged generations through his music. He has given us music that lasts and continues to be relevant and meaningful, generation after generation – music that thrills our hearts each time we hear it.”

Bennett closed the evening with performances of two Gershwin tunes, “They All Laughed” and “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and, of course, his signature song – that tribute to the city where “little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.”

Bennett first performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1961 and over the decades has sung it countless times on countless occasions – in concert, on television, at World Series games, at the Golden Gate Bridge 50th anniversary celebration, at the reopening of the Bay Bridge following the 1989 earthquake.

On Wednesday, he reprised it again, first solo backed by his own small band, then with the help of the entire cast, led by Wonder on harmonica.

“You’re beautiful,” Bennett told the audience, after the last of many standing ovations and as he departed the stage.

The fans gathered at Constitution Hall more than returned the feeling.

The Gershwin Prize concert honoring Tony Bennett is scheduled to be broadcast on Jan. 12 on PBS.