When a recording artist is prolific as Tony Bennett, it can be daunting to dig through his discography, especially on today’s streaming platforms. After all, the singer released nearly 100 albums over the course of his 70-year career. If you’re looking for the hits, this isn’t the list for you. Thankfully, others have already assembled those best of albums and playlists. Most of the six suggestions below didn’t blow up the charts or win Grammys. These were passion projects for Bennett, projects he was able to talk Columbia Records into allowing him to record in between his big hits for the label. These are the albums I return to again and again.
The Beat of My Heart, 1957: Bennett’s first foray into jazz with jazz drummers Chico Hamilton, Jo Jones, Billy Exiner, Art Blakey, Candido Camero and Sabu Martinez. Trumpeter Nat Adderley and tenor saxophonist Al Cohn also contribute on the project. The album aptly demonstrated Bennett’s instincts for improvisation to skeptical jazz critics.
Tony Bennett Sings For Two, 1961: An intimate piano-vocal studio recording with Ralph Sharon at the keyboard. Without orchestrations, Bennett’s voice and his interpretive skills are on full display. Bonus: this bare-bones album infuriated Columbia A&R chief Mitch Miller, best known for his schlocky “Sing Along With Mitch” LPs.
My Heart Sings, 1961: A joyous swinging big band record featuring saxophonist Zoot Sims, Eddie Costa on vibes, Milt Hinton on bass and future “Tonight Show” band leader Doc Severinsen on trumpet. One of the many highlights is Bennett’s powerful interpretation of Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill’s ballad “My Ship.” It’s rare that meatballs have ever been rolled and submerged into a pot of simmering Sunday gravy in our house without this playing.
When Lights Are Low, 1964: Bennett’s first jazz trio record with pianist Ralph Sharon remains perhaps my favorite of all the singer’s many albums. I even dedicated an entire tribute to it during the COVID pandemic lockdown. As the title, taken from Benny Carter’s ballad, indicates, it’s a mood record perfect for a quiet evening at home, relaxing. Bonus: Bennett caught hell from the Columbia art department for commissioning illustrator Bob Peak to do the cover portrait. In his memoir, Bennett recalled the head of the art department grousing, “If the artist starts telling us what to put on the album cover, I’m out of here.”
Perfectly Frank, 1992: The singer’s Grammy-winning tribute to longtime friend and mentor Frank Sinatra. Recorded with his longtime pianist Ralph Sharon and a jazz trio, Bennett wisely avoids Sinatra’s signature numbers and digs deep into his catalog, reimagining the songs from the Great America Songbook. Clocking in at 73 minutes, it’s also one of Bennett’s longest studio recordings.
Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool, 1999: Recorded to commemorate the centennial of mentor and friend Duke Ellington’s birth, “Bennett Sings Ellington” is one of the singer’s lushest, most tragically overlooked later recordings with arrangements by Jorge Calandrelli featuring the Ralph Sharon Quartet, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and a full orchestra.
If you’d like to continue your Tony Bennett audio adventures, check out the masterful but little heard albums he recorded on his own label, Improv in the 1970s after departing Columbia. These albums
include “Life is Beautiful,” (featuring a title track written by friend Fred Astaire), his two Rodgers & Hart songbooks for the label and either of his vocal-piano duet albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.