Tony Bennett performs at The Statler Hotel's grand reopening on Friday -- more than 60 years after he played the hotels Empire Room.

Tony Bennett performs at The Statler Hotel's grand reopening on Friday -- more than 60 years after he played the hotels Empire Room.

Ashley Landis/Staff Photographer

In July of 1959, upon the announcement he would be returning to the Statler Hilton's Empire Club two years after he first played the Commerce Street hotel, Tony Bennett told this newspaper he regarded Dallas as his "good-luck town." The crooner told The News' nightlife writer Tony Zoppi that his "first important out-of-town notices came from Dallas when I played the Baker Hotel there about five years ago." And for that, Bennett said, he was forever grateful.

By mid-October 1959, Bennett had returned to the Statler's famed supper club -- now where the bar-turned-bowling alley Scout is perched in the hotel's lobby, its multi-colored wrap-around glass wall still intact. Back then, if one wanted reservations to see Bennett during his run at the Empire, one needed only to call "Mr. Leo" -- this was, then as now, a big small town. During that stint, the singer broke Statler box-office records previously held by the flamenco dancer José Greco.  No kidding.

Bennett would eventually outgrow the Statler, after he left his heart in San Francisco.  But on Friday night, he returned for its official grand (re)opening, this time performing for some 800 well-heeled attendees who paid around $1,000 a ducat to see him in the ballroom where, most famously, the Jackson 5 once performed.

He came back not as a scrappy young comer with a few hits and Frank Sinatra's endorsement, but as the last one standing among the interpreters of The Great American Songbook -- a 91-year-old whose pipes, astoundingly, have not yet rusted. He's both legend and lounge singer, the larger-than-life icon feted by Billy Joel and Lady Gaga on his 90th but also Anthony Dominick Benedetto from Astoria, still working to wow.

It is impossible to sell short Friday night's performance: Though he may have forgotten a few words here and there, and though he sang the same song twice ("It Amazes Me"), Bennett is far from a shadow of his former self. His voice can still reach the back of a ballroom, even in a whisper; and he can still break your heart by drawing out a note to a point beyond where most mortals dare to tread.

He sang but snippets of his earliest hits: "Rags to Riches," forever linked with GoodFellas, and Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart." Instead, his was the familiar repertoire of jazz singer for whom modern pop music still means Gerwshin, Coleman, Ellington, Porter and Al Dubin, whose 1933 song "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" was Bennett's first-ever recording in 1950 and remains a centerpiece of his set 68 years later. Except now those songs, once sung by a young man on the rise, take on new meaning -- carry more weight -- when performed by a man who turns 92 in August. 

An ad from The Dallas Morning News on Oct. 15, 1959

An ad from The Dallas Morning News on Oct. 15, 1959


Especially, say, a song like Gordon Jenkins' "This Is All I Ask," once a staple in Sinatra's repertoire, too. "As I approach the prime of my life, I find I have the time of my life," sang the man who still belts it out like the best is yet to come. "Learning to enjoy at my leisure all the simple pleasures." Or Ellington's "(In My) Solitude," famously sung by Billie Holiday but never more resonant than when performed by a man who outlived them all. 

"In my solitude you taunt me," Bennett sang Friday night, backed by a crack quartet of bass, guitars, piano and drums. When he reached the line "With memories that never die," his voice rose, then dipped, then cracked, then stretched into the seeming forever till it faded for a moment. A young man sings it with the practiced anguish of a talented actor engaging in make-believe; an old man performs it with the insight that comes from a lifetime's worth of heartache.

But make no mistake: Bennett sings even the saddest of songs with an infectious joyfulness -- the ever-present grin, the thumbs-up, arms raised and spread wide after each song as if to embrace the audience. And the crowd responded in kind, offering a handful of standing ovations on a special night.

Bennett's appearance at the Statler, in front of women glittering in sequins and men tied up in tuxes, was a throwback to the long-ago days when downtown hotels housed nightclubs that were every-night destinations for the fete set. Every hotel once had its popular go-to joint: the Baker, the Mural Room; the Adolphus, the Century; the Cabana, the Bon Vivant; and the Statler, its Empire. His return to the old hotel erased the longing for what was -- that nostalgia -- and brought it into the new, the now.

Toward the night's end, Bennett noted, briefly, his long-ago stints at the Statler. Then, he said, his return after decades away was "10 times better than it was the first time." We will have to take his word for it. But it was easy to believe.

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