RAMBLIN ROUND: Of Tony, Lady Gaga — and Hank

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga are about to release the duet album "Love for Sale," a followup to their previous hit album "Cheek to Cheek."

Word that Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga are releasing a second album of duets in October started me to thinking about Bennett's link to another of my favorite artists.

The album "Love for Sale" — titled after Cole Porter's classic song — is set for an Oct. 1 release.

Bennett, who turned 95 on Aug. 3, announced earlier this year he had Alzheimer's — although those who saw what was billed as his "Farewell Performance" with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall in August, said he he looked and sounded great, as usual.

"Love for Sale" also billed as the duo's final duet album, along with hints it could be Bennett's last album ever.

"Love for Sale" is being released amidst plenty of fanfare, including a CBS television special titled "One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga," set for airing on CBS over the Thanksgiving weekend. Another "MTV Unplugged" appearance, recorded in August, is yet to be scheduled, and a documentary titled "The Lady and the Legend" is set to stream on Paramount Plus.

Unfortunately, Bennett's son, Danny Bennett, who serves as his manager, has cancelled all of Bennett's 2021 fall tour dates, which included a scheduled concert in Norman.

While Tony Bennett still has his musical chops and received rave reviews for his Radio City Music Hall performances, his son said the family is worried about things such as his father slipping and falling as well as the traveling that's part of touring.

As for Bennett's aforementioned link to another of my favorite artists, word of his upcoming album, television and streaming appearance reminded me of that connection.

It's one of my favorite images, one which I've read about in several biographies.

Whenever Hank Williams and his band the Drifting Cowboys were on tour and would pull into a diner or a roadhouse to grab a quick bite to eat back in 1951, Hank would head straight for the jukebox and start filling it with nickels, dimes and quarters to play his favorite new record over and over again.

Nope, it wasn't one of his own recordings, or even a record by a fellow country artist Hank admired. Instead, the record Hank played on the jukeboxes had already started its journey to the #1 spot at the top of the pop charts, sang by a young Italian singer from New York who'd scored only a couple of hits before making the record Hank liked so much.

Although Hank wasn't playing one of his own records while playing jukeboxes with all those nickels, dimes and quarters, he was playing one of his own songs.

Hank's song, "Cold, Cold Heart," had been recorded by a young Italian singer — one Tony Bennett — back in 1951, as the followup to Tony's previous #1 record, "Because of You." To be sure, Bennett, who used an orchestrated arrangement by Percy Faith in his version of "Cold, Cold Heart," didn't sound like he'd just stepped off the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, but in a way,  it turned out better for country music that he didn't.

When Bennett's version of "Cold, Cold Heart" shot to number one on the pop charts, it brought country music to a much-wider, more urbane audience, including many who weren't familiar with the genre at all. Indeed, back then, many of the trade magazines and record charts didn't even call it country music, instead saddling the genre with the sobriquet" hillbilly" or folk music.

I've read it took some convincing by record producer and Columbia Records A&R man Mitch Miller — yep, the same Mitch Miller who would go onto fame on the "Sing Along With Mitch" television show which aired from 1961-1964. Bennett, who normally veered toward the Great American Songbook school of writing,  initially had some reservations about recording a three-chord song, but Miller ultimately convinced him the song would suit him well.

Once Bennett hit #1 with "Cold, Cold Heart," Hank needed a lot more pocket change to continue playing pop music versions of his songs on all those roadhouse juke boxes — because other pop music singers and producers of the era began to realize potential gold lay in Hank's songs.

Soon, Jo Stafford teamed with fellow pop singer Frankie Laine for a duet on Hank's song "Hey, Good Lookin' — which climbed to #21 on the pop charts.

Stafford also teamed up with Paul Weston and His Orchestra, along with the Norman Luboff Choir, to record a pop music version of Hank's song, "Jambalaya." Not only pop music singers, but pop music fans around the nation had taken a shine to Hank's music and lyrics, sending "Jambalaya" to the #3 position on the national pop charts in 1952.

Another female pop music singer did even better with another song that had been recorded by Hank. Although written by Curley Williams, Hank Williams recorded the song "Half as Much" and scored a hit with it in 1951.

Rosemary Clooney, who would later become the aunt of George Clooney when the future actor was born in 1961, recorded "Half as Much" in 1952, sending the song to #1 on the pop charts.

Hank saw unprecedented success in 1951 and 1952 — due not only to his own records, but also because his songs topped the hit parade when covered by pop singers.

He didn't get to enjoy it long, though. As his fans well-know, Hank died on Jan. 1, 1953, in the back seat of a 1952 Cadillac while being driven by teenager Charles Carr to a scheduled New Year's Day concert in Canton, Ohio.

I noticed while writing this column on Friday that Hank Williams would have turned 98 today had he lived.

Yes, for me anyway, it's still startling to realize that Hank and Tony were once contemporaries — two young men in the music business, with Tony releasing his first #1 song, "Because of You," in 1951 before topping the pop charts again with Hank's "Cold, Cold Heart."

If Bennett could still deliver what many who saw it considered an outstanding performance last month at Radio City Music Hall at the age of 95, consider what the music world may have seen if Hank — who was only three years older — had survived. I wonder about the hundreds of songs he may have written during that time.

As for Bennett, he's one of the last surviving artists of an era that saw masters such as Frank Sinatra, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and others create their own brands of timeless music.

It brings to mind something Willie Nelson said recently when asked about the loss of his fellow artists and close friends such as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard.

"I never wanted to be the last man standing," Willie said.

He then paused to reflect a moment before suddenly grinning and adding: "Wait a minute! Maybe I do."

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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