Tony Bennett Celebrates His 90th Birthday With an NBC Tribute Special

Tony Bennett
Peter Kramer/NBC
TONY BENNETT CELEBRATES 90: THE BEST IS YET TO COME -- Red Carpet -- Pictured: Tony Bennett -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC)

One thing’s for sure: Tony Bennett may be a nonagenarian, but the cat can still bring the house down.

On September 15, fans of the singer filled New York’s iconic Radio City Music Hall for a concert with his fellow musicians, friends and admirers celebrating the his 90th birthday. (His actual birthday was on August 3.) The show ran about three hours, punctuated with a raft of standing ovations for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli, k.d. lang and of course, Bennett’s duet partner and great pal, Lady Gaga. NBC will air Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best is Yet to Come, a two-hour version of the concert, on Tuesday, December 20.

The crowd was a lively one, erupting in applause when the honoree first made his way to his seat in the hall and twice breaking out in impromptu rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song between sets, bringing Bennett to his feet.

Alec Baldwin started things off with his well-known imitation of Bennett, and continued to sprinkle through the show; he had the singer’s voice in timbre and syncopation down pat. Clearly enjoying himself, Baldwin won big laughs when he said, “When you are 90, every day you’re above ground is a celebration.” At one point, he was joined by “Liza with a Z,” actually The View’s favorite male comic, Mario Cantone (in drag), who famously captured Minnelli’s distinctive style.

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There were tons of congratulations, from a motley crew on stage and on video tributes ranging from Clint Eastwood, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards (you haven’t lived until you heard the Rolling Stone croak “Happy Birthday”) to Miley Cyrus, Homer Simpson and Joe Jonas.

Bruce Willis and Kevin Spacey talked about Bennett’s work to keep arts education in school (Spacey drew cheers with a pretty good—and appropriate to his House of Cards role—rendition of “If I Ruled the World.”) Wynton Marsalis offered a particularly moving remembrance of all that the birthday boy had done for civil rights back in the ’60s, including singing for the marchers in Alabama along the route,.

But it was mostly about the music. Gaga, who’s so close to Bennett that she has his birth name Benedetto tattoed on her arm, did a set during the show that opened with a swinging “The Lady Is a Tramp” and ended with an emotional “La Vie en Rose.” She looked slinky in several form-fitting, high cut, vintage-looking gowns. Wonder drew cheers with “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” as did k.d. lang’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”

Other live artists included Diane Krall, Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton, Michael Buble and Rufus Wainwright. A video performance from Elton John was shown, as was a duet between Billy Joel and Bennett at Madison Square Garden in August. Bocelli brought tears and wild applause with a rendition of “Ave Maria” accompanied by a Haitian children’s choir.

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The best came last when the man of the hour, who started singing post WWII, had his first hit in 1951 and won his last Grammy for Cheek to Cheek, a standards album with Gaga, sang some of his and the crowd’s favorites. He swung with “The Best is Yet to Come” and “Who Can Ask for Anything More,” thrilled the hall with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and threw his mike down as he finished unamplifed with “Fly Me to the Moon.” The dude can still project.

Before he walked off the stage, in perhaps the most touching moment of the celebration, a visibly moved Anthony Benedetto said, “This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me and will be in my heart forever and ever.”

Then, despite shouts of “encore,” the evening came to an end with the performers together on stage singing the classic “Happy Birthday,” then rocking the joint with Wonder’s soul version.

Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best is Yet to Come, Tuesday, December 20, 9/8c, NBC