The event featured a performance by Bennett and Paul Shaffer
WCBS Newsradio 880 celebrated 50 years as an all-news station, a tradition that has been unchanged since founded by the legendary CBS president William S. Paley in August of 1967. This celebration was marked by a special live event, headlined by iconic Queens native Tony Bennett.
The evening, dubbed “A Night of New York Stories,” was filled with numerous WCBS personalities switching off interviewing duties with various celebrity guests. The broadcasting personalities-too numerous to mention-demonstrated why they have been chosen to carry on a legacy of excellence in journalism. The presentation was marked by pointed questions, thoughtful reflections, and even a laugh or too.
The celebrities themselves spanned the entertainment spectrum. New York Giants alum George Martin, legendary Mets manager Bobby Valentine, retired Rangers hockey player Adam Graves, and even former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly were all on hand to share their favorite memories living and creating iconic careers in the greatest city on Earth.
The theme of the night was community, and the kind of community professional news reporting creates. 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager and longtime reporter Lesley Stahl described how they choose their stories in the modern age: without audience testing. They discussed their belief that being journalists means finding important stories and telling them compellingly, not selling out to likes or clicks.
Another constant theme was the reporting and actions of these famous New Yorkers during the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Bobby Valentine described how Hells’ Angels came to the staging site at Shea Stadium at 4 am and were put to work using their knives to open clamshell packaging containing new flashlights for first responders. George Martin told a captivated audience about his cross-country Journey for 9/11. And Commissioner Kelly described the challenges of initiating the NYPD’s counter-terrorism measures in the wake of the tragedy. “The 1993 bombing should have been a warning,” he said, “But it wasn’t.”
Of course, the night’s biggest highlights were the musical performances from Paul Shaffer and headliner Tony Bennett. During his interview, Shaffer discussed the history of his World’s Most Dangerous Band, which was heard for over 30 years as the backing band to David Letterman during the host’s time on both NBC on CBS. Shaffer also brought up memories working on Broadway musical Godspell and on Doug Henning’s Magic Show, some of the first projects to bring the future bandleader to New York City. Most pointedly, Shaffer was asked about the Concert for New York City, a 9/11 victim’s benefit concert for which he served as musical director. Paul McCartney headlined, and Shaffer claimed it was the first time the former Beatle performed in front of the band with which McCartney now tours.
At the end of his interview, Shaffer sauntered to a keyboard to perform a small portion of a huge hit not many people know he helped to compose. It is a song that, according to Shaffer, was written in “a small hotel room right here in New York City.” The song? The Weather Girls’ 80s anthem “It’s Raining Men.” And boy, did his performance give the women’s version a run for their money! While Shaffer is straight, he remarked that he is proud the song has become a gay anthem.
After nearly two hours of waiting, Tony Bennett made his appearance as the night’s top-billed star. Interviewed by CBS Evening News anchor Anthony Mason, the legend (who happened to have 33 hit songs by the time WCBS went on air) recounted growing up in Astoria, Queens, and what his father taught him about life. Once, when he was robbed, the elder Bennedetto gave the culprit a job instead of pressing charges.
“Bennedetto” is Bennett’s given name. “Bennett,” he told the crowd, is a truncated stage name given to him by another legend: Bob Hope. And thus, “Anthony” became “Tony,” and a star was born. A star that is truly the last of an era the evokes Sinatra, Martin, and Davis, Jr.
To hear Mr. Bennett sing is a rare treat that will always be treasured by those who have the fortune to be in the presence of his voice. It is a voice that needs no description. A voice that in fact demands to speak for itself, in true New Yorker fashion. While listening to him speak in his high-pitched Queens accent, one does anticipate the deep resonance of Bennett’s vocals. Though he may be 91, Bennett’s voice is as strong as it has ever been. When asked how he has been able to keep his chords in such great shape, his answer was simple, “I just love to sing. I always have.”
Tony Bennett serenaded the WCBS celebration with two songs. He was accompanied only by a guitarist, with whom he has toured the world. First, he sang “They All Laughed,” his voice growing in strength and depth with every note. Of course, he followed that up and closed his set with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Though, with all due respect to the legend, I think that was a biggest inaccuracy in a night filled with praise for strong, accurate reporting. I think Mr. Bennett’s heart was right here in New York, just like the heart in all those stories.