Magazine Feature

Tony Bennett's Season of Celebration: At 90, the Singer Reflects On A Life Rich with Collaborations, from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga presents Tony Bennett
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for RPM

Lady Gaga presents Tony Bennett with his 90th birthday cake at The Rainbow Room on Aug. 3, 2016 in New York City.  

Every morning, right after breakfast, Tony Bennett practices his craft — not with sheet music and a microphone, but with a sketch pad and canvas.

Bennett, one of the finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook, is also an accomplished artist, with three watercolors (of Central Park, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald) hanging in galleries of the Smithsonian Institution. Both his art studio and his apartment, which he shares with Susan, his wife of nearly 10 years, overlook New York’s Central Park. Today, as it is many days, the park is his subject. “Nature always changes,” he says. “It just becomes different throughout the year, so it’s never the same.”

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Bennett, who turned 90 on Aug. 3, will have less time for painting in the months ahead, amid activities to mark this milestone. On the evening of his birthday, he was feted at New York’s Rainbow Room with a performance by Lady Gaga, with whom he topped the Billboard 200 in 2014 with their album Cheek to Cheek. The Empire State Building that night featured a light show synchronized to the songs of this beloved singer.

On Aug. 19, The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where Bennett first performed his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1961, will unveil a statue of the singer. In September, he’ll tape an NBC network special at Radio City Music Hall with Gaga, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel that will air later in the fall and provide the solo and duet material for an album coming Dec. 16 on longtime label Columbia Records. In mid-November Harper Collins will publish Just Getting Started (co-written with NPR’s Scott Simon), a book devoted to the people and places that have inspired Bennett.

Born Anthony Benedetto on Aug. 3, 1926, in Astoria, Queens, the singer began performing as a little boy to entertain his aunts and uncles for nickels and dimes. “They told me, ‘You’re a very good performer,’ and it created a passion in me for the rest of my life,” he says.

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His career began at a “little, tiny nightclub in Astoria,” he recalls. “I would get $15 for the weekend, plus tips from the audience on requests. That’s when I first started singing professionally. I was 14.”

What’s your first memory of success as a musician? 

I was working [at the Village Inn] in Greenwich Village [in 1949], and Pearl Bailey heard me singing. She told the proprietor of the club, “If this boy isn’t on my show, I’m not going to perform here.” She started touting me like crazy. Bob Hope came to see Pearl Bailey’s show, and he was so knocked out by the way I sang, he said, “You’re coming with me right now.” I was shocked. He took me up to the Paramount Theatre. It was my first time in front of a large audience.

And that’s around when Bob Hope changed your name? 

He said, “What’s your name?,” and I said, “Anthony Benedetto.” He said, “That’s too long for the marquee. Let’s Americanize you, and we’ll call you Tony Bennett.”

You spent a lot of time in the ’40s and ’50s going to jazz clubs on New York’s 52nd Street. What did you learn about phrasing and singing from artists like Charlie Parker and Art Tatum?

It was the beginning of be-bop. I would go into those clubs in the late afternoon when the great musicians were all rehearsing and learn so much just by listening to what they were doing. [My vocal teacher] Mimi Speer gave me a great lesson. She said, “Don’t imitate another singer, because then you’ll just be one of the chorus. Just be yourself.” She told me to stay with quality and never change. Quality, quality, quality, and I was taught well.

Were there times it was hard to stick with quality, when Columbia may have wanted you to do something different beyond jazz?

Completely. In fact, toward the end of his life, [legendary Columbia Records head of A&R] Mitch Miller ran into my son Dan, who manages me, and he said, “Boy did I make a mistake because your father always wanted to sing jazz and I him told him, don’t do that.” Sinatra had just left Columbia and [Miller] wanted me to sing the kind of the ballads that Sinatra sang on, those early wonderful records. He kept saying to me, “Don’t sing jazz, we just want you to sing ballads.” It was pretty tough because I had to convince him I just wanted to be myself.

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Sinatra called you the best singer in the business. What’s the best advice he gave you?

He was a great friend. My agent created a summer replacement for me [in 1956] for “The Perry Como Show” [on NBC]. For the summer replacement show, they cut the band down to just a few musicians and no really big guest stars. I went to see Sinatra backstage at the Paramount where he was performing. I told him how frightened I was. He said, “Never be frightened of the audience because if they’re coming in to see you, they really enjoy listening to you, so just know that they’re your friends.” It was a great lesson he taught me to this day.  I love to make people feel good. That’s been my premise of what I’ve done my whole life. 

Who else gave you great advice? 

Jack Benny and George Burns. They said, “Now son, you’re doing fine, but it’s going to take you quite a while to really learn — about nine years — what not to do on the stage.” And, sure enough, they were right. Nine years later, Bob Hope saw me in Dallas in a night club and he said, “You finally have arrived now. You know what you’re doing.” It was a big compliment. It made me feel so good.

Do you still have things to learn  as a vocalist?

I’m still learning as much as I was when I was 19. There’s so much to learn. The main thing you learn is what to leave out, to never stay on the stage too long and just have a sense of when the show is complete.

What did you think the first time you heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”?

We were down south in a little nightclub. [Bennett’s longtime pianist] Ralph [Sharon] found this song in his bureau drawer. He said, “Here’s a song that might be good for you to do for your next record.” I remember singing it and there was a bartender who was getting set for the evening. He said, “I don’t want to interrupt what you’re doing, but if you record that song, I’m going to be the first one to buy that record.” It was “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Then when I got to San Francisco, at the Fairmont, there were a few people in the audience watching the rehearsal, and as soon as I started singing it, everybody rushed up to me and said, “You’ve got to record that song!” (Laughs.) The people from San Francisco went nuts over my singing that song, and so we went right in and recorded it.

Though it became your signature song, originally, it was only a B-side in 1962.

Right. I was working on “Once Upon A Time” and the officers of Columbia Records said, “Turn that record over and start working on the other side!” They started getting a reaction from the audience that they wanted “San Francisco.”

You marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. You said no when Harry Belafonte initially asked you. What made you change your mind?

The way the blacks were being treated. It was horrible. And at first I said, “I came back from [serving in combat in World War II] and I don’t want to fight about anything.” When he told me how horrible they were treated, I said, “OK, I’ll do it,” and it was a great experience.

We finally left the march because we had an engagement. The woman who drove us back [Viola Liuzzo] was [later] assassinated [by the KKK]. It was a tragedy.

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You have admitted that you hit a slump in the ’70s. Did you think about stopping singing?

No. Never. It was just temporary because I had gotten divorced and I felt terrible about it, so there was a little downer there for a while, but the public’s never let me down.

In the early ’90s, MTV started playing the “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” video. How did that introduce you to new fans?

There was a whole young audience and everybody just couldn’t believe it. They were communicating with me and they were as enthusiastic as their parents. I’ve never had trouble with a live audience. I don’t remember having a heckler or something unfortunate happen.

Really? You have never been heckled? 

No. I give them 100 percent. They pick up on that right away. And they give you 100 percent right back.

You recorded “Body & Soul” with Amy Winehouse in 2011 for Duets II. It was her last session before she died. What do you remember about her?

She was one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard. It was just tragic that with her relationships and drug problem she couldn’t beat it. I was so disheartened when I found out [she had died] because I loved the way she performed with me and I was shocked. I was waiting for the next time we were going to do something together.

You seem to have a great relationship with Lady Gaga.

What a talent. She knows how to perform well, and she’s just a great artist and a great person also. She has a lot of heart and a lot of soul, and she plays beautiful piano. She’s very accomplished as a performer. I think for the rest of our lives she’ll do wonderful things for us. She always shows up different every time you see her.

Yet you have made consistency your trademark, from your elegant tailored suits to your choice of songs. 

I’ve always stayed with quality, and lately the music business is quite different. It’s all about who is selling the most records, no matter what the quality is — whether it is or it isn’t, it doesn’t matter, if it sells. I grew up in a beautiful era with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. They were my three idols and they still are. By staying with quality, you sustain, you exist. Any time I look for a song, I look for the intelligence of the way it was written. Are the words exceptional? Is the music very musical? I’m not saying this egotistically, but I’d like you to know I’ve never made a bad record. I’ve always stayed with quality.

You have made more than 60 albums. Many people consider the stripped-down records you made with Bill Evans in the ’70s, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album in 1975 and Together Again in 1977 on your own label, Improv, to be your best work. Are they your favorites?

Absolutely. They were great experiences. It was just so beautiful to be involved with them because I was singing with the best. They were the best musicians, and the public knows they’re the best performers. I was very blessed with the fact that I was performing with them.

You have performed for 11 U.S. presidents, starting with Eisenhower. Who was your favorite?

Bill Clinton. I like the fact that he was the first president where you didn’t have to stand at attention. If you walked up to him with your hands in your pockets, just relaxed, and said, “Hi Bill,” he was completely a natural guy. I really like him as a person, and I couldn’t get over as a president that he wasn’t stiff or standoffish.

You have been a very outspoken Hillary Clinton supporter for this presidential election.

They’re a good family. I like them.

What’s the last thing you do before you step on stage?

It’s automatic for me to listen to the attitude of the audience. If [I] feel that the audience is excited about waiting for the show, it turns me on to even give them more. If they are enjoying themselves, I’m in another world. 

Does performing keep you young?

I’m just lucky and I’m completely healthy. My doctor tells me, “There’s not a thing wrong with you.” I feel on top of the world. I’m singing well. The audience loves what I’m doing. All I can tell you is I have a blessed life.