I am among the millions who adore Tony Bennett: The man, and his music. When I saw news that “singer, entertainer, bandleader” Eddie Bruce and the Tom Adams Trio would pay tribute to Bennett at a one-night-only Chris’ Jazz Café dinner performance, I quickly called for tickets.
The man, the music
One of the main reasons I love Bennett himself every bit as much as I love his music and style, is that I have a profound respect for survivors, those who refuse to give up, despite life’s unfairness and injustices. Bennett has faced professional failures, drug addiction, IRS difficulties, and two failed marriages. With the guidance and support of two sons, he made a comeback in the late 1980s, now has what appears to be a fulfilling and successful third marriage, and is nationally and internationally recognized for his impeccable talent, presence, and endurance. Further, he has become an accomplished painter, using his birth name, Anthony Benedetto, and he and his wife, Susan Crow, a retired New York city teacher, devote much time and effort toward numerous philanthropic causes.
I knew little about Eddie Bruce’s long and devoted Philly history, and had never been to a bar mitzvah or wedding where he performed. As he introduced himself to his audience at the performance and began to sing, for reasons I did not understand at the time, my mind suddenly jumped to the phrase, “good enough mother,” coined by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. (Yes, he should have said ‘parent’ and I will, but keep in mind that the time was 1953.) After observing thousands of babies, Winnicott realized that children benefit from parents who do their best, realize their imperfections (and as I see it, do not ask their children to fulfill their dreams). I can hear you asking, “What in the world does this have to do with Eddie Bruce?” I will explain.
I did not know if Eddie Bruce was going to try to “pay tribute” by replicating the voice of Bennett, or present his music in his own way. What I experienced was his grateful respect for Bennett, the nearly 90-year-old “keeper of the flame for the great American songbook.” Bruce is a man, by his own admission, who tried mightily to achieve fame and recognition on a national stage. When that did not happen, he accepted who he is, what he can do, and has never stopped looking for opportunities to express his music. He was refreshingly honest: He apologized for a sudden cough that intruded upon his performance. He shared that while wedding and bar mitzvah gigs pay the bills, performing in clubs is his true love.
Songs for the soul
At this sad and unsettling time in our nation and beyond, Bruce’s opening number, “What the World Needs Now,” offered optimism. His voice, not uniquely distinctive, is deeply sincere and kind, and for most of the evening he sounded much more like Eddie Bruce than Tony Bennett, which was perfectly fine. Subsequent songs continued to both uplift and ask the audience to examine our condition: “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “What’s It All About, Alfie?” and “If I Ruled the World.”
There were moments when Bruce seemed to channel Bennett, though he did not match the man’s vocal quality and presence, or the depth that comes with lived experience (though, of course, few can). He played “Put on a Happy Face,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” The superb Adams trio accompanying him, and on its own (with piano, base fiddle, and drum), brought the jazz sensibility that makes one long for a dance floor.
The only failed attempt of the evening was the song Bruce co-authored as a tribute to Philadelphia, entitled (I think), “Philly Is the City I Love So Much.” It is totally understandable why this non-heralded love letter failed to catch on, make any charts, and is nowhere on Google (or Yahoo). Lacking the sophistication and soul of some other regional anthems — “New York, New York,” “San Francisco” — it’s primarily a heartfelt, yet limited travelogue.
Bruce’s closure, “For Once in My Life,” once again engrossed his audience, followed by an immediate stage return asking, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” — bringing knowing applause from a primarily middle- and upper-age audience.
So, yes, Eddie Bruce is a “good enough” performer, a true, devoted Philadelphian who accepts who he is, who he is not, and gives his audience his all. Like the man to whom he paid tribute, he has mastered the art of endurance.