Editor’s Note: Like many of us self-isolating during this unnerving COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been turning to music as a source of comfort. As I began pulling out certain albums from my LP collection in recent days, I discovered a consistent theme — I was selecting favorites that have long brought me joy. These were also recordings by artists I love— the musical equivalent of catching up with an old friend. Since these albums are helping me, I’ve decided to share some of these —and the stories behind them — on a regular basis in hopes they’ll help. I’m choosing to focus on the lesser known recordings by some of our most-cherished musicians. I’ve made sure to only include albums that are widely available on streaming services so they can be safely enjoyed at home. Please stay safe, everybody!
“When Lights Are Low,” Tony Bennett, 1964
Accompanied by his longtime pianist Ralph Sharon and just Hal Gaylord on bass and drummer Billy Exiner, “When Lights Are Low” was singer Tony Bennett’s first-ever trio LP. I got introduced to Mr. Sharon’s playing in the 1990s when he rejoined Mr. Bennett as his touring pianist, a musical partnership that lasted well over half a century.
Unlike Bennett’s many orchestral and string-enriched recordings for Columbia, there’s a looseness here with just Tony and a trio (they even stretch out Bob Dorough’s “I’ve Got Just About Everything” to over six minutes).
There’s a sense of fun percolating through every selection, with drummer Exiner introducing his trademark after-beat behind Bennett on “Speak Low” and the singer showing off his operatic vocal prowess on the wind chime-accented “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bennett started out life as a singing waiter, after all).
And then there’s the gorgeous rendition of the title track ballad written by Benny Carter, which is the perfect musical accompaniment for a candle-lit dinner during our current quarantine. Exiner, meanwhile, drops a Latin beat behind the brief but brilliant one-minute, 17-second “It Could Happen to You,” a tune I was first exposed to when it served as the title track for Chet Baker’s 1958 vocal record.
While the album features well-known standards, including “It Had to Be You” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “When Lights Are Low” also features the lesser-recorded “Nobody Else But Me” from Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” and the aforementioned “I’ve Got Just About Everything,” which made its recorded debut on this album.
Tony Bennett grew to love the jazz trio format. It’s the configuration he prefers using to this day — at age 93 — in his live appearances. But in 1964, while he loved recording artier albums such as “When Lights Are Low,” Bennett’s bosses at Columbia Records wanted him to focus on replicating the hit commercial sound of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Bennett, a visual artist himself, battled behind the scenes to use an illustration by Bob Peak, an artist he loved, on the cover. “I got flak from Columbia over the artwork,” the singer recalled in his 1998 memoir “The Good Life.” “It was a battle every step of the way. The woman who ran the art department really blew her top. She told [then-Columbia boss] Goddard Lieberson, ‘If the artist starts telling us what to put on the album cover, I’m out of here.’”
By 1971, such artistic disagreements would ultimately lead Bennett to leave the label that first signed him in 1950. After a few years releasing his own critically acclaimed but far less commercial records, Bennett rejoined Columbia in 1986, where he now enjoys complete autonomy over what he records for the label. As he explained to me over a lunch interview back in the 1991, “As an artist, I never wanted a hit song. I always wanted a lasting hit catalog!”
Ultimately, he ended up creating just that, including this 1964 often-overlooked gem.
If you like “When Lights Are Low,” consider checking out “Music for the Late Hours: The Tony Bennett Songbook” by the Ralph Sharon Trio, Columbia Records, 1965 and “Tony Sings for Two,” an intimate piano and vocal duet record by Bennett and Sharon, Columbia Records, 1961.
Now, it’s your turn. In the comments below, share some deeper cut albums from your favorite artists that are helping you get through this pandemic. I’d love to take a listen!