It took me 56 years and a trip to Spokane, Wash., before I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.
I want to be Tony Bennett.
I want to be 81-years-old and still have that cooler-than-cool swagger he exudes when he steps from the darkened wings of a stage and is bathed in applause and wrapped in the warm embrace of a pair of Super Trouper spotlights.
If I'm lucky enough to have an artistic comeback, I want it to be as sustained as Bennett's and last so long that it becomes a full-fledged second career.
Those thoughts flashed through my mind as I watched Bennett re-christen the historic Fox Theater in Spokane last week. Jake Glassey Jr., who produces our television show Curtain Call, joined me on this latest visit to the Inland Northwest to cover the reopening of the Fox, which was spared the wrecker's ball and underwent a $31 million facelift.
Technically, history will record that the Spokane Symphony Orchestra was the first act on the new stage along with mezzo soprano Frederica Von Stade. But even as they showcased the magnificent acoustics in the 76-year-old venue, they were merely the warm-up act.
Two nights later, with about 50 fewer musicians and without the classical attitude, Bennett and his quartet stamped the room with their seal of approval. They turned this 1,700-seat gem of a building into a smoky, back-alley saloon.
Of all the great song stylists of the 20th Century, Bennett is the only one who's made it, with his act and his faculties intact, to the 21st Century. It's no longer accurate to say he's among the last of a vanishing breed; let's face it, at 81 he is the last man standing -- and singing.
And when he's gone, a musical form that's distinctly and proudly American will go with him. It's as simple as that.
But let's not write a premature obituary for the world's last living saloon singer. As long as he can perform at the level we saw last week, the only place he's going is to his next gig, which just happens to be Friday and Saturday (Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) at Harrah's Resort.
There seem to be no concessions to his age in the music. Bennett's still singing in the same key and at the same tempo. Although he rarely wanders from his mark on stage, he still accents and punctuates the lyrics with hand gestures and body language.
And while he's sung many of these songs literally thousands of times, his eyes still shine and it still looks like he's singing and enjoying the words and the music as though he's hearing them for the first time.
Walking briskly on stage just moments behind his musicians -- piano, bass, drums and guitar -- Bennett dove headlong into the Great American Songbook.
While artists like Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart are cashing in by "discovering" that precious collection of musical Americana, Bennett has been singing this music for a half-century, even when it was totally uncool to do it.
But the bottom line behind all of this octogenarian adulation is Bennett's voice. There's a slightly raspy whiskey tinge to his tenor, which breaks just slightly as it curls around a lyric like a wispy plume of cigarette smoke, the kind of pale blue haze you'd find in a saloon.
A ballad becomes more than just another tender song. It becomes an intimate conversation between two lovers, with the amorous participants being the singer and the band. On an up-tempo number, he punches out the words with breath-defying phrasing and diction that milks the meaning out of the words.
Between numbers, Bennett tells stories, not so he can perform fewer songs and rest his voice, but to genuinely entertain his audience with tales of his peers who are now singing in swing heaven, like Sinatra, Sammy and Clooney.
But it was one of the first songs he performed during last week's set that really caught my attention. Although I once talked to Bennett fairly regularly in advance of his casino dates, he isn't doing many interviews these days, so I probably won't get to ask him if my observation was accurate.
“I’m really blessed with a lot of luck, you know, and [I’m] in top health and I really I love it because I made a commitment to myself to never retire, because I have a lot to learn yet. I’m 85 and I’m studying sculpturing now for the first time, studying music. So I’m still doing a lot of studying.”