1927 – 2023
Professor Joe Goldblatt
“Do you mind if I stand next to you?” When I heard this soft voice whispering in my ear backstage at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada I did not recognise the almost shy and introverted tone of the request.
For the previous ninety minutes I had been standing stage right wearing large head phones and calling cues to the lighting, sound, and other technicians as the main event performed in front of a 50 piece orchestra before 500 high rollers. He sang all of his popular hits ending with his classic, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and then returned for two encores before finally bowing off the small stage.
For some reason, the audience seemed to realise that due to his advanced age the performance they were seeing was in many ways iconic. By then Frank was gone, Peggy Lee had retired, and our performer was indeed the last man standing.
Therefore, when I removed my headphones to better hear his question I was gobsmacked to see that the man in the elegant tuxedo and loosened neck tie was our performer Mr Tony Bennett. I had only been in his presence once before when he performed at the legendary Hollywood Bowl before ten thousand adoring fans. I was seated in a box seat front and centre when Tony sang the plaintif ballad written by the actor – comedian – director Charlie Chaplin. “Smile, though your heart is aching …”
This week, millions of hearts are aching with the loss of Tony Bennett at age 96. A couple of years ago his family revealed that he was suffering from dementia and alzheimers and he even made one final appearance with Lady Gaga at the Radio City Music Hall where five thousand fans listened in great awe and rapture as they once more were in the presence of one of the greatest entertainers, and as they also must have known, that a more humble man was exiting the stage and they would never have the privilege of listening to again in person.
During Tony’s life journey from his humble beginnings in Astoria Queens, New York to his appearances all over the world as a major concert star, he never lost his humility. Quietly and confidently he recorded seventy albums, launched and funded a school for young people named after his hero Frank Sinatra in Brooklyn, New York and he developed a very successful career as a visual artist and never once bragged about any of his achievements. He simply and with grace got on with using his enormous gifts to delight and help others.
During my own lifetime I have met only a few men and women of great achievement who also shared Tony Bennett’s rare gift of great humility. The alignment of great achievement and great humility is indeed a rare combination of personality traits that few are able to balance equally.
One other example of this rare ability is my close friend of forty years who also passed away recently. Tim Lundy of North Carolina in the United States was the international president of two hospitality and event management associations with thousands of members, a renowned chef and expert producer of events for thousands of guests. He achieved this great success without once raising his voice or talking about himself. Like Tony, he was more interested in others than his own self and would begin any conversation by asking about others and then listening carefully and asking even more questions because of his sincere interest.
Both Tony and Tim somehow knew that their talents were sufficient on their own and did not require their own individual promotion. Instead of promoting themselves, they focused upon improving their individual crafts and then sharing their gifts with as many people as possible.
Perhaps that is why when at the end of that New Year’s eve performance when this modest man who had sold millions of records asked if he could stand beside me I was in fact speechless. A few minutes later, after I had called all of the cues for the singing of Auld Lange Syne and the laser lights and pyrotechnics had disappeared and the applause died down, I was chuffed when Mr Bennett smiled broadly, extended his warm hand to me and said “That was terrific.”
As he walked away to his dressing room I stood a little taller that new year’s eve in Las Vegas because I had been in the presence of true greatness. His greatness was not only based upon his talent for music and painting, it was underpinned by the art of humility that he had mastered and shared with so many for so long.
The final two lines of the song Smile are “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.” I shall long remember and always remember the smile Tony Bennett shared with me as he disappeared into the night after allowing me to be in the presence of this generous artist whose greatest talent was his boundless humility. I will also remember that as a result of great men such as Tony and Tim, what is important is not how often you smile, but rather, how many people smile because of you.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His views are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot