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From the Copa to Gaga: Tony Bennett’s legendary Vegas career

Updated July 22, 2023 - 11:23 am

Tony Bennett’s Las Vegas career spanned El Rancho Vegas in the early 1950s, through the Copa Room at the Sands and the Rat Pack era, landing at performances with Lady Gaga at Park MGM.

Bennett, who died Friday at age 96, last appeared in Las Vegas with Gaga at then-Park Theater, now Dolby Live, in June 2019.

“We have a guest tonight, a living legend!” Gaga shouted in the Sunday performance of her “Jazz + Piano” show. The announcement of Bennett’s name was nearly inaudible for the crowd’s response. “What an audience!” Bennett called out. The two then sang “Cheek to Cheek” the title of their 2014 album and subsequent world tour, and “The Lady is a Tramp.”

Gaga and Bennett first appeared together in Vegas at Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan on New Year’s Eve weekend 2014, during their “Cheek To Cheek” tour. Trumpet great Brian Newman, Gaga’s close friend and collaborator since the late-2000s, was bandleader that night.

“Being with Tony in Vegas felt like home, if that makes sense,” Newman said during a phone chat from his Brooklyn home on Friday morning. “He was a driving force for the Great American Songbook, and he saw Gaga and the musicians as a way to keep honoring the music. He really loved singing with the orchestra, and we were just excited to be around him.”

Bennett’s last shows as a Vegas headliner were a trio of performances at The Venetian Theatre in September 2019. His final live appearances ever were two shows with Gaga and her orchestra in August 2021 at Radio City Music Hall, celebrating the legend’s 95th birthday. Newman was on stage then, too.

“Thinking about it, my eyes keep welling up,” Newman said. “We were part of music history.”

Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health co-founder Larry Ruvo was in that crowd. Bennett was honored for his 90th birthday at the 2016 Keep Memory Alive Power of Love gala at MGM Grand Garden.

“That was classic Las Vegas,” Ruvo said that night. “Not old, classic.”

Ruvo delivered a cake to Bennett on stage that night. Bennett had just ended his show-closing medley with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” when Ruvo arrived with a birthday cake and several sparklers showering the stage. Bennett had not noticed the cake. As the crowd’s roar increased, he turned to see his friend, the cake, and the pyro show.

“He literally dropped the microphone,” Ruvo said Friday morning. “He said, ‘That is the first time in my career someone has caused me to drop the mic on stage.’”

Bennett had visited the Ruvo Center in the days leading to the event, touring the facility and singing at a VIP party the night before.

“He was so, so generous, he was absolutely engaged during his tour of the Center,” Ruvo said. “He was a great friend to our organization, and to Las Vegas for many decades.”

Mr. Las Vegas Wayne Newton issued a statement about a star he had known since the ’60s in Las Vegas.

“Although he may be gone from this earth, what he has left us with his incredible music will live on forever. Our condolences to Susan and the rest of his family. Rest in peace, Tony.”

On Friday and Saturday nights, Fremont Street Experience is honoring Bennett with one-minute shows in its Viva Vision attraction at 7 p.m., 9 p.m., 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. The displays will feature a medley of Bennett’s famous renditions of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Rags to Riches” and “The Best is Yet to Come” will be played.

Tennis pro and philanthropist Marty Hennessy was one of Bennett’s closest friends. They met in the mid-1970s when Hennessy taught lessons at Desert Inn and Bennett headliner the hotel.

“He always told me he wanted to do three things,” Hennessy said Friday. “Sing, paint and play tennis.”

Bennett helped Hennessy start his youth-tennis charity organization for kids with talent, passion but lacking resources to play the game. That effort has since bloomed into The Marty Hennessy Inspiring Children Foundation, with recording star Jewel heading up the organization.

“The Foundation helps kids in many ways now, not just tennis,” Hennessy said. “Tony helped get it started.”

Bennett’s career in Las Vegas dated to his debut at El Rancho Vegas’s Opera House as Milton Berle’s opening act in 1952. That was as Bennett’s first hit single, “Because of You” was on its way to 1 million sales.

Bennett went on to appear at such famed Vegas hotel-casinos as the Sahara, Dunes, Sands and Las Vegas Hilton (today’s Westgate), Desert Inn, Golden Nugget and Encore Theater at the Wynn (where he also appeared at the “Sinatra 100: A Grammy Celebration” show in December 2015).

Bennett performed at the opening of Caesars Palace in 1966, and later was a headliner at the legendary Circus Maximus showroom. He returned for the 50th-anniversary gala.

The superstar also performed with Gaga for a $1,000-per-ticket, VIP show at Encore Theater on New Year’s Eve 2016.

Even after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in ’16, Bennett continued to amaze audiences and vocalists with his robust voice.

“He came to me backstage when I was at Harrah’s, and he was around 80 at the time, and he gave me this cassette tape,” said Vegas headliner Clint Holmes, who had met Bennett decades earlier in New York City. “It was the series of Italian exercises he was doing. He said, ‘I am going to be singing when I am 100 years old, and I want you to, too, so warm up with this tape.’”

Holmes did that. Well, he tried.

“I literally couldn’t do it. I put the tape in and went, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ The scales were so intricate, they were way too hard to do just out of hand,” said Holmes, who learned proper vocal technique from his opera-singing mother. “Later I was watching an interview with Barbra Streisand, and she told the same story. ‘Tony Bennett gave me this cassette, but it was way too hard, I could never do it.’ He was an incredible singer, incredible.”

Bennett found work in Vegas when his career stalled and life took a downward turn in the late 1970s, as he survived a near-fatal drug overdose and struggled to land a recording contract. The city would allow him to make a comeback that extended through the last five decades of his life.

Over the years, Bennett found a friend protege in the talented impressionist Bob Anderson, who took over Top of the Dunes for late-night shows that often started at 2 a.m.

“Tony would be there with all the stars from the Strip, coming in to see each other when they were done working, and the Top of the Dunes was a popular destination,” Anderson said Friday morning in a phone chat from a Detroit suburb, where he has been visiting family. “We had Sammy, Don Rickles, Vic Damone, all those cats at Top of the World. Tony would come in and sing and we became friends. He was one who said, ‘You do me better than I do!’ But he was a wonderful, humble man who loved entertainers.”

Anderson invited singers to jam with him backstage at the Copa Room before he took the stage for his own show.

“We’re talking, Mel Torme, Jack Jones, Vic Damone and many singers would go there and sing with Tony,” Anderson said. “This is a who guy absolutely loved music, and loved his opportunity to show it to people. His whole life was about his music.”

That passion carried through to the very end of his life. Gaga shared the moment with fans at Park MGM.

“Tony, thank you for keeping jazz music alive!” Gaga said, leading Bennett from the stage and clutching his arm. “I just want to hold him a little longer.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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