From singing on the back of his father’s vegetable truck in the early days when a music career was just a dream, to getting style tips from Tony Bennett, vocalist Tony Viviano has done it all.
Throughout the course of his 40-year career, Viviano has become comfortable in many musical genres, from jazz and rock to blues and funk. Jazz takes the forefront during an 8-11 p.m. show Friday at Robbie’s House of Jazz in Webster Groves. Viviano will perform with saxophonist Jerry Greene and his jazz quartet, which features , bassist Chris Watrous and drummer Montez Coleman.
Viviano said he is thrilled to be performing with Greene, whom he calls his best friend in the music industry.
“He’s such a master musician—all of them are,” Viviano said. “They know the ropes on jazz. They know what’s going on. They always perform with a clean, fresh taste, and they get right down to business. It’s the way they interpret the song. They take so many liberties and yet they come right back on one, and they make the song their own. I enjoy working with them.”
Tony mentoring Tony
Viviano got some advice from a friend that really sums up the benefits of performing with a jazz group.
“Tony Bennett always said, ‘As a vocalist, listen to the jazz musicians—they know where they’re going.’ They understand what this music is about, and then the singer can pick that up and sing it the way the writer wanted it to be interpreted,” Viviano said. “The jazz musician knows.”
Viviano and Bennett go way back.
“He taught me to sing (in 1971) when I was just 22 years old,” Viviano said. “I sang with him backstage at Caesar’s Palace. Milton Berle paid my way to Vegas. I was singing at Dean Martin’s restaurant in Miami Beach, and Berle wanted to help me. He got me out there, and I wound up meeting Tony Bennett. I got to see Tony Bennett from the show’s side curtain—you think I got an education? Unbelievable.”
After the show, Viviano was introduced to Bennett.
“He was talking to some of the backstage hands, and he looked at me and said, ‘Tony, you’re a young guy. Don’t you like The Beatles?’ In other words,” Viviano said, interpreting, “Why do you like me—I’m so much older than you?”
Bennett asked Viviano if he knew the song “Something,” which was one of the songs popularized by the Fab Four. Viviano said yes.
“He snapped his fingers and said, ‘Let me hear you sing it.’ Wow. I’m OK outside my body, but inside I started shaking. I started singing it the only way I knew it, which is the way The Beatles did it, which was very plain, very choppy. I had a high-pitched voice back then, and I went, ‘Something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other lover,’” Viviano said, singing in a high voice lacking inflection.
“And he looked at me and frowned and he said, ‘And you worked at Dean Martin’s in Miami?’ And I was embarrassed, so I stopped. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Do not stop. Keep going.’ Wow.”
Viviano started singing, and Bennett joined in.
“And he goes, ‘Something in the waaaay she woo-oohs me,’” Viviano sang, doing a spot-on impression of Bennett, full of style and emotion. “And I went, ‘Oh my God.’ I was in awe of what he did. Here’s a man singing the very same song, but from the heart, with true feeling. I’m like, ‘Holy cow,’ and I stopped. And he said, ‘I said, don’t stop, keep going.’
"We did the whole song together. I was on cloud nine. Wow. I was in heaven. He walks me to the edge of the stage in Caesar’s Palace, right in the middle. There were about 25 people still leaving the theater. He puts his arm out and he waves to the seats and he said, ‘Tony, you can do this. But I’ll tell you what, you ain’t gonna start here, because nobody starts here at the top.’”
Bennett gave him the name of an agent, and got Viviano his first job at the Riviera in Las Vegas. While Viviano ultimately chose to concentrate on performing in St. Louis, he has remained friends with Bennett and goes backstage to see him when the veteran crooner performs at the Fox Theatre.
“Since that day that I met him, his spirit rubbed off on me, and I sound a lot like Tony Bennett,” Viviano said. “But I also do Louis Prima, Joe Cocker—a lot of people with a gravelly voice, I guess. But I enjoy Bennett immensely. And of course, I love Bobby Darin too.”
Mixing the music
Viviano has spent most of his career performing in St. Louis. He met his wife here, and they raised two children.
“I love what I do, and I love working with jazz musicians,” he said. “But you can’t put me in one bag either. I gotta do all different types of music. I gotta do blues, jazz, rock, funk. I did folk music in my early days. It’s just interesting the way I’ve watched the music change."
Viviano has tried to follow the example of his friend and teacher.
"The way Tony Bennett does things, the older he gets, the better he gets,” he said.
Viviano is jazzed about working with Greene, who is so knowledgeable about the genre he has written the book Patterns for Jazz, which is used as a text in college and high school music programs.
“He’s just got a certain air about him, that he knows how the music goes,” he said. “He could play rock, but he chooses to do jazz.”
Friday’s performance will include a tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington, including “Sophisticated Lady,” “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “In a Mellow Tone” and more. The performance will be a true collaboration between Viviano and Greene’s quartet.
“I’m not gonna sing every song,” he said. “They’re gonna be focused on what they’re doing, and that’s what takes it to another level.”
Viviano is very complimentary about the musicians he will perform with, describing them in glowing terms such as “remarkable” and “incredible.”
Byrne teaches jazz at Webster University. Watrous has an eight-string bass mounted on a stand. Greene plays seven or eight instruments, has arranged all of Viviano’s music and is “just a wonderful guy.” All of them have played in his band at some point.
“I’m honored to work with them,” Viviano said. “They’ve helped me out all these years.”
Robbie’s House of Jazz is at 22 Allen Street in Webster Groves. Admission is $10 adults, $5 for students with identification. For more information, call 314-968-5556.