ARCHIVE: Bruce is Back on the Boardwalk

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Not THAT Bruce, but yes, THAT Bennett: Bandleader, broadcaster, top-shelf cabaret entertainer and expert in the music of the great Tony Bennett, Eddie Bruce brings his BRUCE ON BENNETT tribute back to Tim McLoone’s Supper Club on Thursday, August 20.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit August 18, 2009)

There was a time, between ten and twenty years ago, when we’d take every chance we got to see Tony Bennett live in concert — because, not to put too crass a point on it, “you just never know with these old guys.” Suffice to say that here in 2009, the keeper of the key to the Great American Songbook has outlasted just about every one of his musical contemporaries, and a good half of those bands that he chummed around with during that moment in which he was adopted by the then-current MTV generation.

Ever since the day we all realized that Sinatra had passed and not taken the worldwith him, Anthony Benedetto has assumed the lofty status of National Treasure; albeit one who visits your town rather than making you travel to see him in a museum. The 83-year old Bennett is still out there touring, of course, but anyone who suffers Tony withdrawal in between his not-infrequent appearances at theParamount or the Basie or in AC would do well to check out the cabaret act of singer and bandleader Eddie Bruce.

A Philadelphia-based bandleader and event entertainer of long standing, Eddie Bruce might be familiar to anyone whose old TV picked up Channel 17 out of Philly in the 1980s, as the original host of Dancin’ On Air,  the last of the local/regional teen dance shows (a la Hairspray) and a forum that gave some crucial early exposure to acts like Madonna and Duran Duran.

Eddie’s also got a labor of love project that he’s been working to great acclaim through a CD and a series of well-reviewed cabaret/nightlub gigs — Bruce On Bennett, a tribute to the Songbook sultan that puts aside any Legends in Concert-style impersonation in favor of heartfelt homage from a true fan; an interpreter of the Bennett legacy whose strong voice and personal take on the material really serve to illuminate these songs.

This Thursday, August 20, Eddie Bruce returns to the space-age stage at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park for a late-summer encore, and Red Bank oRBit was there to wave the banner of Bennett Bennys everywhere. Read on for our exclusive interview, in which you’ll find, among other things, the Madonna-in-the-bathroom story.

DownloadedFileEddie Bruce as he appeared in his role as host of DANCING ON AIR in the early 1980s.

RED BANK ORBIT: Good to have you back with the Tony show, Eddie…I know it’s not the only thing you’re up to professionally, but it’s been getting you a lot of good attention these days…

EDDIE BRUCE: The shows we did in New York got some good press. And Tony Bennett himself, of course, is singing as well as ever. He just turned 83, and he still puts on a great show — he’ll sing for 90 minutes, without even sitting on a stool or taking a sip of water.

Now, Bob Egan, who books these cabaret shows at McLoone’s, does a lot of bookings with male tribute artists as Streisand and Liza Minelli and Carol Channing…so when you play the Supper Club, are you going to at least have to do it in a Tony wig?

Ha! The proper thing in this case would actually be to have a woman as Tony Bennett. But no, I’m very much myself here. The Bruce on Bennett show is really just as much about me as it is about Tony…it’s about these songs that I love and how his singing has affected me; I talk about what the songs mean to me.

How far back do you go as a Tony Bennett fan? 

I always listened to him as a kid. In fact, I did one of his songs when I auditioned for the old Mike Douglas  TV show when I was 13, back in 1967. My parents wanted me to sing “Alfie,” which was a big song at that time, but I wanted to do “If I Ruled the World.”

And that choice of song got you on the show?

No. It didn’t. But I did get on Ted Mack Amateur Hour! That was very exciting for me. They taped that inside the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York. I got to perform, but I wound up losing to a clarinet-playing priest!

You know, with the stories you’ve got, it’s like you’ve been in showbiz for a hundred years. And the scariest thing is, I remember Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour too.

Well, then you’d remember GERITOL, their sponsor — for ‘iron-poor tired blood.’ And there were commercials for SERUTAN — remember, ’spelled backwards is NATURES?’ — which was some kind of laxative for old people. Their commercial would start with a voice saying ‘Are you over 35?’ Ha! Can you imagine?

Well, we weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30 anyway. So by age 35 everyone was expected to be all hopped up on Geritol, which was probably just booze…anyway, you’ve been performing Tony Bennett songs in public since the days when The Beatles were still around! 

It really wasn’t until I heard his album The Art of Excellence, which is considered his ‘comeback’ album, that I knew what I wanted to do…that’s just about his greatest album, with songs like “I Got Lost in Her Arms,” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” That’s been a highlight of his concerts, and I use it at the end of my show.

And that started the phase of his career that lasts to this day, with all those great thematic kind of albums…

Things like Perfectly FrankHere’s to the Ladies. Those are trio albums, and I actually always preferred him singing before the big orchestra.

Once he was appearing at what was then Bally’s Grand in Atlantic City, and I went to see him inside the hotel theatre…I gave a hundred dollar bill to the maitre d’ and told him ‘I HAVE to sit right there up front!’ So Tony comes on, with just his trio, you know, and it’s fine, really, but I was just hoping for something more. And after a couple of numbers the curtain goes up and reveals at the full 45 piece orchestra, and everyone just cheered. It was just the greatest thing.

I’ve seen him at least a dozen times, and every time he does the song “Fly Me to the Moon,” he puts down the microphone and belts it out with no accompaniment, no amplification… 

That’s been a staple of his set for many years…I can do the whole banter for you(recites Bennett’s stock intro for the song); Tony likes to have his standbys like that. Sometimes you’ll catch him throwing in a new comment, like on a tape I have from a show at Caesar’s last month…he’s in the middle of a line and some guy in the crowd yells out ‘SING it, Tony!’, and he stops and says ‘What the hell do you THINK I’m doin’?’

What did you make of that strange interlude back in the early 90s, when he was briefly popular with the MTV audience; doing his own Unplugged special and showing up at the awards show? 

It wasn’t so much a strange interlude as it was (Tony’s sonDanny Bennett’s very brilliant way to get him back into the mainstream, to win over some new fans. And it worked! Ever since then, he’s reached this iconic stage, where he’s guaranteed to go out on a high note. He’ll always be in demand, as long as he wants to sing.

What are some of your personal favorite songs of his?

Oh, I mentioned “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” I love when he does Duke Ellington, when he stretches out a little on stuff like “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” “For Once In My Life,” both in his very slowed down version, and also when he did it withStevie Wonder. Now that’s a durable song, to have been such a great hit for both of those guys separately and together.

And I especially love the ballads — ”Shadow of Your Smile,” “This Is All I Ask.” When he works with an orchestra that knows him, and they give him the space he needs, it’s just a textbook case on how to phrase a ballad.

Has Tony Bennett ever come to one of your shows, or at least acknowledged what you’re doing in some way?

He hasn’t been at the shows, but I know he’s got a copy of my album. I have a picture of him holding it up. Whether he’s listened to it, I don’t know, but he’s definitely aware that we’re out here doing this.

To go off topic a bit, I understand you made it onto MILLIONAIRE and won some cash there.

Yeah, that was back in May! Not the version with Regis, and actually not withMeredith Viera. They had a guest host, Samantha Harris from Dancing With the Stars. One of my questions was about her show! I was ashamed to say that I had never watched it — I had to ask the audience on that one.

I auditioned five times for that thing, aced the test and never got a postcard calling me back. What trips me up is when they ask you what interesting thing you’d like to tell Meredith about yourself.

I had to think about that one. I told them a story from when I was hosting Dancin’ On Air, which I did for three years on Channel 17 — I left before it went to the network and became Dance Party USA.

Anyway, one of the acts we had on was Madonna, way back when she was just starting out; her very first TV appearance. And while she was in the studio, one of her people, a dancer I think, lipstick’d up all the mirrors in the bathroom. The producer got mad and made everyone in her crew go and clean it up. When I tell the story now, I tell them I made Madonna clean the bathroom.

That must seem like a whole other lifetime ago, hosting that show.

It’s always been good for name recognition. But what I’ve really done, more than anything else in my career, is thousands and thousands of weddings and bar mitzvahs, whether with a big band or a little group. With the Bruce on Bennett act, I needed to play what I loved, all the songs that mean a lot to me. Tony Bennett’s a real keeper of the flame when it comes to the Great American Songbook, and somebody’s got to preserve that tradition.

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