The Bootleg Files: Tony and Lena

BOOTLEG FILES 830: “Tony and Lena” (1973 TV special starring Tony Bennett and Lena Horne).



REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music clearance costs.


During the 1970s – also known as The Decade That Good Taste Forgot – most television specials were bizarre concoctions populated by dubious talents. Where else but in the 1970s would the phrase “Special Guest Star” and names such as John Davidson or Florence Henderson be united amid waves of canned applause?

Occasionally, a genuinely classy production found its way on the air during this decade. The 1973 “Tony and Lena” was one of these happy anomalies. And while it was not immune to the era’s bad taste (at least in art direction and set design), it nonetheless offered a maturity in substance that was often lacking by the raggedy chaos that masqueraded as mainstream entertainment on the broadcast channels.

In 1973, Tony Bennett produced a concert tour where he performed with Lena Horne. Their show played at several venue across the U.S. and Bennett arranged for a television special to be produced in London by Associated Television for broadcast on ITV. Both singers were popular with British audiences – Horne starred in several British TV specials in the late 1950s and into the 1960s while Bennett relocated to London in the early 1970s and briefly had his own series during that time.

“Tony and Lena” was crafted for an hour-long slot (with commercials), and it is different from other variety specials of that decade at several levels. For starters, there is no chit-chat dialogue whatsoever – the entire production is entirely in song, until a “good night” salutation between the stars at the show’s end. Also, the entire production is staged on a single set – an elaborate yet awkward design that could be mistaken for a rejected Frank Lloyd Wright concept of a Marriott hotel atrium, complete with artificial plants and trees and raised platforms with stairs above an orchestra pit. This design creates problems as the stars wandered endlessly and almost aimlessly while belting out their tunes. Also, the applause that inevitably greets every number has a mechanical sound, suggesting the production was staged without an audience to appreciate the proceedings.

Also – to be cruel – there was a bit of a Beauty and the Beast situation on camera. Horne, of course, looked like a million bucks and was very comfortable on camera. Bennett, however, was considerably less photogenic – an ill-fitting toupee and not-so-well tailored tuxedo, along with an often-awkward camera presence, did not make him Horne’s physical equal. Of course, Bennett’s voice was his strength and his command of a song enabled him to hold his own during the production.

“Tony and Lena” finds the two singers going through the Great American Songbook along with their interpretations of the then-popular pop tunes. The show opens with a duet of the Beatles’ “Something” – with the “Abbey Road” classic reconfigured into a supper club torch song – and the show then progresses into a mix of solos and duets for the first half and then into a tribute to Harold Arlen’s output in the second half with the duo sharing the stage, sometimes together in song before taking the spotlight for their own.

Curiously, neither singer performs the hits that are most associated with them – and perhaps the funniest moment is when Bennett starts singing “Stormy Weather” while Horne laughs at his musical hijacking. And there are only two moments of genuine dramatic power – Bennett’s interpretation of “Maybe This Time” plumbs the “Cabaret” ballad and emerges with a melodramatic meditation of self-deception while Horne takes the “Sesame Street” musical rumination “Being Green” and transforms it into an empowerment talk-sing lecture about finding one’s worth amid a world of doubters.

Viewed today, “Tony and Lena” is not the most interesting production. But at the time, it gave Bennett and Horne a rare starring spotlight when their respective careers mostly consisted of occasional TV guest shots and below-the-radar concert dates. The strength of their combined star power resulted in a British TV broadcast in July 1973 that was popular enough for ABC to import it for prime-time U.S. presentation three months later. Bennett and Horne would reprise their pairing for a Broadway show in October 1973 that had a month-long engagement to rave reviews.

Today, “Tony and Lena” can only be enjoyed in a bootlegged video uploaded to YouTube. Clearing the music rights to the show’s line-up is obviously too expensive, and a proper home entertainment release would require more money for a digital restoration of the original broadcast. Absent of those expensive upgrades, this YouTube video is the best (and only) was to easily enjoy the show.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.