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Tony Bennett performs at Staples Center for AARP hunger benefit

Tony Bennett performs during his 85th Birthday Gala Benefit for Exploring the Arts at The Metropolitan Opera House on September 18, 2011 in New York City.
Tony Bennett performs during his 85th Birthday Gala Benefit for Exploring the Arts at The Metropolitan Opera House on September 18, 2011 in New York City.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Tony Bennett performed Saturday night at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The concert was sponsored by AARP and benefited Drive to End Hunger, an effort to end hunger among older Americans. The venue was far from full, with the third level trapped off and large sections of open seats in the 100 level, as well as some open sections in the 200 level. The charity event likely made a good deal of money though, particularly thanks to tables in front of the stage with tickets coming in at over $1,500.

The event featured a special guest appearance by Stevie Wonder. Bennett introduced Wonder by saying, "He's a genius, and I don't use that word loosely." Wonder said he first heard Bennett sing when he was 14, and heard a song he fell in love with - "For Once In My Life." Bennett and Wonder dueted on that song, which Bennett had sung and Wonder later took and made into a hit himself. They'd also recorded a duet of the song for Bennett's first "Duets" album.

Wonder also thanked Bennett for his support for "social, economic and civil rights," even when that support wasn't popular. He thanked Bennett for his "contribution of love," and said it came "not just through his songs, but through his integrity." The comments reminded me of political comments Wonder made recently in a surprise appearance at the Echoplex (which you can read about in another post from this blog here).

A 2006 performance by Bennett and Wonder of that song:

After their first song, Wonder asked Bennett about doing another song, and in what seemed like a largely improvised affair, they began doing "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" together. Wonder seemed to be looking for where to jump in and started by playing harmonica and scatting over Bennet's vocals. Bennett cued Wonder to jump in for the second verse, though that may have been a bit harder to do with a blind partner, but Wonder picked it up a few beats late before going into harmonies and improvisations on top of Bennett's basic vocal later in the song.

American Idol/country star Carrie Underwood also made a special appearance, coming out to sing "It Had To Be You," which they recorded together for Bennett's new "Duets II" album.

Wonder came back out for a big finale, accompanied by Underwood. A large 85th birthday cake was rolled out on stage for Bennett; his birthday was actually over a month ago, but they used the opportunity to wish Bennett well. Wonder sang his version of "Happy Birthday" and led the crowd in a singalong. Bennett also recently had a birthday gala with other celebrities such as Elton John and Bill Clinton last week.

One other celebrity connection on the show came when he sang "The Good Life"; near the end of the song, Bennett mentioned that he'd like to dedicate the song to Lady Gaga. Bennett and Gaga duet together on Bennett's new album. "What a performer," Bennett said about Gaga.

Bennett may not have the same stamina he once did, but he still pulled off a 90-minute show. He hit song after song, doing short versions of most of them and managing to go machine-gun style through a wealth of material. He did offer many musical breaks with solos from the band, so he preserved his voice by only hitting the high points. Those solos included a man Bennett described as Count Basie's favorite drummer, as well as some excellent solos from his piano and steel guitar players.

Bennett looked a bit stiff, but still pulled out a few spin moves and some quick dance steps to much applause from the audience. He did noticeably drop a lyric at the beginning of "The Way You Look Tonight," opening with a line from a different part of the song, but he quickly made a joke of it, smiling and doing a little scat before getting back into things. The short versions of songs he did and the musical breaks probably helped keep him from having to worry too much about remembering every verse in the many songs he sang.

Bennett had a playful vibe with the crowd. It's not quite the instant intimacy of a classic Frank Sinatra show, but it had a bit of that Las Vegas show feel. "I've been singing 50 years - I'll be honest with you, it's been 60 years," Bennett joked at one point.

Bennett started off with lesser known songs before moving into his hits. When someone in the crowd yelled out "We love you Tony!" in the middle of a song to laughs from the crowd, Bennett took a moment to acknowledge it with an "I heard that!" before jumping right back into the song.

He told the story of his career throughout the show. He said that he and Rosemary Clooney were the original American Idols, as they both appeared early in their careers on a show called "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." (Bennett wrote about that show and the Idol connection for an obituary of Clooney in 2002.)

Bennett explained how he went under a stage name early on when he met Bob Hope, who told him his name was an obvious fake and asked him what his real name was. He told Hope it was Anthony Benedetto, and Hope suggested shortening it to Tony Bennett.

Bennett said Hope taught him how to be an entertainer, and it shows. Bennett's an old master at working a crowd; he reminded me of when I saw soul legend Solomon Burke, who spent much of his show sitting down, but with his mastery of phrasing, hand motions and storytelling, he gripped the audience and never let go. Bennett, an old hand and a master at performing, pulled a number of tricks to engage the audience, including having them clap along, blowing kisses and taking the time to soak up applause.

He talked about how, despite worrying about doing a country song, he was talked into doing Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart," making it a hit. He said that Williams called him and asked "What's the idea of ruining my song?"

When he sang "Because of You," the man sitting behind me in the crowd commented, "That's the first song I remember of him. My mother bought that." It's an example of the intimate connection many listeners have with Bennett's music.

Bennett said something commonly said by many performers, saying that this was his favorite crowd, but he added an explanation that may make that more genuine than when it's usually said - he pointed out that the event was for charity and for a cause Bennett's passionate about. "I'm gonna spend the rest of my life raising money for this affair," Bennett said. He talked about growing up in the Depression and facing humble beginnings in his own life.

He also told a story about a connection with a piece of Hollywood royalty. He said that disco and rap were taking off when he wanted to do an old song, but his recording company told him it wasn't current. Despite their protests, he recorded it anyway and it became a hit song. The song was "Smile"; he received a letter thanking him for making it popular once again from the song's writer - Charlie Chaplin.

"I guess you can tell by now I only sing old songs," Bennett said, but he said he loves them. He closed his main set with a song he said was perfect for the current moment and "the most timeless song ever written." That song was "Who Cares?" by George and Ira Gershwin. The audience laughed at the opening lines, "Let it rand and thunder/Let a million firms go under," seeing the timelessness in today's current economic climate.

The show was a chance to see a unique link with the past, the last great standards man of his generation. The music will continue on thanks to the Harry Connicks and Michael Bubles of the world, but there's only one Tony Bennett.