‘He’s still got it’

Tony Bennett performs last Saturday at the grand opening of Downstreams new outdoor ampitheater. Rain threatened the show, but cleared out just in time.

Glenn Landberg

Tony Bennett performs last Saturday at the grand opening of Downstream’s new outdoor ampitheater. Rain threatened the show, but cleared out just in time.

Colby Williams

The cloudy navy blue sky taunted the gathering crowd with the smell of rain. Most of the people shuffling to their seats already had their minds made, though – rain would not deter them from seeing Tony Bennett.

“We believe rain is a good thing for our people,” said John Berrey, the Chairman of the Quapaw Tribe and Downstream Development Authority. He noted that the rain quit that day at 2 p.m. which was just in time for the grounds crew to spread out hay and plywood over the muddy ground. He was obviously proud to have Tony Bennett opening up the new venue.

“Sit back, try not to get your feet too wet, and have a great night tonight.”

A handsome young couple, Matt and Teri Foreman won two VIP tickets and a $50 dinner from Lite Rock 93.9 by correctly guessing a Tony Bennett trivia question. With prime seats in the second row, they were jittery with anticipation.

“We’re so excited,” Teri said with expectation in her eyes.

“I love his style,” Matt said. “I grew up listening to Bennett, Sinatra, Dean Martin – they’re my boys. Just driving up, we were like, ‘Are we really going to see Tony Bennett?'”

The rain stayed away, and the spotlights centered on Antonia Bennett, the daughter of the main attraction. With a saucy elegance common to female jazz vocalists, she transported the audience into a world where music is king.

Fittingly, the breeze fluttered the hem of her dress, while the half moon peeked out from a hole in the clouds as if it, too, wanted to listen to the enchanting voice. In the distance behind the stage, the soft lights of the hotel danced in time and tune with the smooth jazz.

In that moment, everyone knew it would be a night to remember.

After three songs, Antonia took a bow, and a trained voice pronounced the words for which the crowd was waiting. It was time to witness history.

Tony Bennett walked onto the stage to a standing ovation in a canary yellow jacket. He was visibly moved by the applause and looked appreciative of every song and memory he shared throughout the night.

Mark Richman, who performed the following night at the casino’s Legends Sports Bar, drove in a day early from St. Louis to catch the show.

“I’ve seen him at least 20 or 30 times,” said Richman, himself a crooner cover artist. “Met him 15 or 20 times. Unbelievable. He’s the best there is living today. Frank Sinatra was a better performer, but Tony was always a better singer.”

Something charged this performance, however, that coupled with that priceless voice. Tony himself often paused to take in the crowd and music, making eye contact and smiling with seemingly every delighted lady in the field of chairs before him.

Tony Bennett is 82 years old. Yet, he still sounded like the Grammy Award winner. He still hit every high note in perfect pitch. He still held out every big ending in classic crooner fashion with vibrato that would make even the hardest heart love again.

The voice was so subtle and controlled on every syllable, but somehow flew from the speakers into the crisp night air. Even cars on the street next to the amphitheater crawled by with windows down just to listen. It was as if jazz was made just for him to sing.

A few songs in, Tony began transitioning with anecdotes from his eventful career. He seemed to remember every element, from who wrote each piece to the night he recorded it. Each story offered an intimate glimpse into his life.

“I’ve been singing 50 years now, ladies and gentlemen,” Tony said. “Honestly, it’s 60 years.” And again, he thanked the laughing crowd for coming out before beginning another story.

“Frank Sinatra was my best friend,” Tony said as he began a story about sneaking in to see Sinatra perform one night. As Tony was “swooning with all the girls,” Sinatra belted out from the stage, “Tony, sing this song for everybody.”

“Boy, if he told you to do something, you’d better do it, or you’d be in a lot of trouble,” Tony said.

Even those not mesmerized by his voice at this point were constantly chuckling at his comedy or watery-eyed by the nostalgia of his memories.

At one point, to the surprise of the security guards, a female fan rushed the stage beckoning for an autograph. Without missing a beat, Tony took her pen and signed his name. He never even stopped singing.

Tony is known to demonstrate the lost art of vocal projection during his shows. Even that night, the 82-year-old sometimes held the mic a few feet further than normal, and his voice still saturated the countryside.

At just the right time, the band picked up with “Sing, You Sinners,” and Tony danced, twirled and scat while inviting the crowd to clap and sway along. They happily obliged.

“Should we keep going?” he asked the audience, which replied with cheers and whistles. “Doesn’t anybody want to lose money tonight?”

The crowd, continuously nodding and tapping its feet, visibly adored every word from Tony’s mouth. They showed him this throughout the night by offering seven standing ovations.

“Response was tremendous,” said Sean Harrison, the spokesman for Downstream Casino and Resort. “Reaction after the show was nothing but highly favorable from everyone I talked to. Much of the response was surprise that ‘he’s still got it’ at the age of 82.”

The longer he sang the closer gray-haired men leaned to their wives, and the tighter many women snuggled up to their husbands. Sooner than the spellbound couples knew it, though, Tony waved with both hands before burying them in his pockets and sauntering off the stage. He left just as smooth as he arrived and with the same bright smile.

Fifteen minutes later, as his band members relaxed with glasses of red wine in about a dozen special VIPs to pictures and autographs backstage. Even though he is known around the globe, he still looked comfortable with his arm around every fan.

The taunting clouds finally released the rain just as Tony’s caravan fled the parking lot. The rain, believed to be a blessing for the Quapaw people, fell on a monumental night for the new resort.

As for Tony, “he’s still got it.”