Twenty-three-year-old Tony Bennett recorded and released his first single for Columbia Records, "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (with its B-side, "I Wanna Be Loved"), in April 1950. From then until the end of 1956, he recorded 87 tracks released contemporaneously on 35 Columbia singles and two LPs, Cloud 7 (February 7, 1955) and Tony (January 14, 1957), not counting compilations. On January 1, 2007, Bennett's 1956 recordings joined those from previous years in entering the public domain in Europe, where copyright extends only 50 years. The British label Proper Records took advantage of that to release Young Tony, a four-CD box set largely devoted to Bennett's 1950-1956 recordings, containing 82 selections with a running time of about three hours and 54 minutes, a length that might have been contained (though just barely) on three discs. The collection, arranged chronologically by recording date, includes all of Bennett's Columbia recordings from April 17, 1950, to September 24, 1954, except "Let's Make Love," from that first recording session. But having featured nearly all of Bennett's first 26 singles, the set then excludes most of his 45s from 1955 and 1956, employing only the A-side of the last of them, "Just in Time," the song from the Broadway musical Bells Are Ringing that reached number 46 in the Billboard singles chart. That means other chart entries "Can You Find It in Your Heart," "From the Candy Store on the Corner to the Chapel on the Hill," "Happiness Street (Corner Sunshine Square)," and "The Autumn Waltz" are missing. All the tracks from Cloud 7 and Tony are included, however, as are three tracks, "While the Music Plays On," "Darn That Dream," and "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," that were recorded in 1954 but not issued until years later. Proper concludes the set by adding in some non-Columbia material: a low-fidelity version of "In the Middle of an Island" (a Bennett hit in 1957) with special lyrics sung on television on The Nat King Cole Show in December 1956 and the contents of the frequently licensed Roulette Records LP Strike Up the Band, a collaboration with Count Basie & His Orchestra recorded in November 1958.
The chronological formatting and the elimination of the mid-'50s singles emphasizes Bennett's musical development during his late twenties. He begins bellowing in a sub-operatic tone on his early records and bowing to producer Mitch Miller's taste for novelty material, working largely with arranger/conductor Percy Faith. While this approach produces hits ("Because of You," "Cold, Cold Heart") and occasional artistic triumphs, such as the big-band swing version of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," there is also plenty of mediocrity. But by the middle of the third disc, as Bennett records tracks for Cloud 7 in August 1954 using only three horns and a rhythm section and covering standards, he has begun to sound like the mature Tony Bennett more familiar to later listeners. He can still rev up to that operatic level for effect, as he does, for instance in "Without a Song," cut in September 1956 and used as the final track on Tony. But he has become a much subtler singer than he was at the start. While it is not a perfect representation of Bennett's early years, Young Tony should be welcomed by Bennett fans seeking material Columbia has been loath to release on CD, especially since it comes at a modest price allowed by the out-of-copyright status of most of the tracks.