One of many versions in the chart that year of Robert Wright and George Forrest’s song from the 1953 musical Kismet, which had only just arrived in the UK, Stranger in Paradise marked the start of slick crooner Tony Bennett’s international success.
Anthony Dominick Benedetto, born 3 August 1926 in Queens, New York to Italian immigrants, grew up loving music. Among his favourite trad pop and jazz stars were Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. His uncle Dick was a tap dancer, and Benedetto loved the idea of joining him in showbusiness. At the age of 10, he sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge, and as a young teen he worked as a singing waiter in various New York restaurants. But towards the end of World War Two he was drafted into the US army.
He later described his time in the front line as a ‘front-row seat in hell’. Returning to his previous career after the war, singer Pearl Bailey invited him to be her warm-up in 1949. She had invited Bob Hope to watch, and he was so impressed he took the young hopeful on the road with him. And that was the start of Tony Bennett, one of our last living original swingers.
Bennett’s first hit came with Because of You in 1951, a US chart-topper for 10 weeks. It was followed by versions of Cold, Cold Heart and Blue Velvet. Such was Bennett’s popularity among women, when he first married in 1952, 2,000 female fans gathered outside the ceremony in black as part of a mock mourning. With his star on the rise, it made perfect sense for the producers of Kismet to get him to record Stranger in Paradise as a way of promoting their musical during a newspaper strike.
Tony Bennett’s voice is the best thing about this song. It’s yet another smooth ballad, smothered with the usual arrangement, but he sings his heart out and it’s plain to see why he became so famous. However, the lyrics are also noteworthy. It’s another love song, but we’re a step above the usual fare from these times. For example:
‘I saw her face
And I ascended
Out of the common place
Into the rarest
Somewhere in space
I hang suspended
Until I know
There’s a chance that she cares’
Despite being his only UK chart-topper, the best was yet to come for Bennett, but he faced several peaks and troughs. He survived the rock’n’roll boom that soon followed, and hit big again in 1962 with his version of I Left My Heart in San Fransisco. Even Sinatra said he was the best singer in the world, but the boom of The Beatles saw Bennett feeling out of place once more, and he faced trying times until he nearly died of a cocaine overdose in 1979.
In the 90s though, he enjoyed a big revival. The illness and eventual death of Sinatra in 1998 perhaps made the world realise the easy listening stars of the past should be enjoyed while they were still around. Bennett was all over television at the time. His natural charm shone when telling tall tales of his career, and that voice was still golden.
Always a supporter of civil rights, and with opinions on the Iraq War and apartheid that have later proven him to be on the right side of history, he’s that rare commodity in music, namely a nice guy and one hell of a talent. He’s now 93 and still recording and performing, and long may he do so.
Tony Bennett is also the earliest UK number 1 act that I have ever seen live. Performing at a very muddy and wet Glastonbury Festival on Sunday 28 June, 1998, my friends and I sat on bin bags near our tents up on the hill by the Pyramid Stage. We probably began watching him with a sense of ironic detachment, as it certainly wasn’t the sort of music we were into. However, he won us over. Though it’s nearly 20 years ago, I remember we danced, we smiled, and the sun even shone for one of the few times that entire weekend. One of the better ‘legend’ slots in the festival’s history.
Written by: Robert Wright & George Forrest
Producer: Mitch Miller
Weeks at number 1: 2 (13-26 May)
Singer Hazel O’Connor – 16 May
Presenter Dale Winton – 22 May
26 May: As soon as he replaced Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden sought to establish his presence in Number 10 by immediately announcing a General Election for this day. For the first time in an election, television proved to take a prominent role in campaigning for Eden’s Conservatives and Clement Atlee’s Labour. As the polls closed, all the signs pointed toward Eden having made a very shrewd move.