Exactly 55 years ago, Tony Bennett hit the Hollywood Bowl stage for the first time, kicking off the July 13, 1962, show with “Make Someone Happy” and appropriately wrapping things up with “The Party’s Over.” But it turns out the party was just starting: He was only 35 when he made his Bowl debut, and now, at a still-spry 90 years old, Bennett returns for his 16th and 17th shows at the L.A. landmark, where he’ll perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic directed by Gustavo Dudamel on Friday and Saturday.
When Billboard caught up with Bennett before the pair of concerts, he gushed about revered director Dudamel (he’s “so wonderful”) and said he was “looking forward” to performing for the first time with the LA Phil. He was also looking back, reflecting on his previous 15 appearances at the Bowl, including a 2015 stop on his Cheek to Cheek Tour alongside friend and frequent collaborator Lady Gaga.
“I’ll never forget it, because from that moment, we just became great, great friends,” Bennett tells Billboard of touring with Gaga. “And to this day, I’m still thinking of doing another album with her. And she’s just a wonderful artist to perform with and a great person that we love very much.” Bennett, who will turn 91 on Aug. 3, still maintains a busy touring schedule, to the delight of his many generations of fans. “It knocks everybody out to see I’m in absolutely top shape and performing like I was doing it 50 years ago. And they just see that I haven’t changed at all and that I love to entertain people. The last performance at the Hollywood Bowl with Lady Gaga — it was just one of those unforgettable experiences.”
Another of Bennett’s unforgettable experiences at the venue was when he was performing “Lost in the Stars” and, all of a sudden, the audience gasped and broke into applause in the middle of the Kurt Weill song. As he walked offstage, Bennett asked what all the fuss was about. “As I was singing, a beautiful shooting star just went right over the Bowl and made everyone stand up and see what happened — just like it was part of the show,” he recalls. “The next morning, Ray Charles called me and said, ‘Tony, how’d you do that?’ [Laughs] I’ll never forget that. I didn’t know why everyone was reacting when I came off.”
Bennett has a lot to celebrate in addition to this weekend’s concerts. On Thursday, the singer learned that December’s NBC special Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come was nominated for two Emmys: outstanding directing for a variety special and outstanding music direction.
“The night we did the live show at Radio City to celebrate my 90th birthday was one of the most wonderful evenings of my life,” Bennett tells Billboard. “I am thrilled that the show was nominated for two Emmy Awards this year, and that is all due to the hard work and dedication of the production team who brought it to television and to both Jerry Foley and Tom Scott, who received these well-deserved nominations. To have such a magnificent group of singers and musicians performing the songs that I have loved all my life meant everything to me. And to have so many good friends onstage to present the introductions, especially Alec Baldwin as Tony Bennett, made it perfect, so getting nominated for Emmys is incredible news.”
Another recent honor for Bennett is the announcement that he’ll receive the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress this fall, with a PBS special of the event to air in January 2018. “It’s so great, because it’s the first time an interpreter has received an honor like that,” Bennett says, noting that the prize has typically gone to artists who are also songwriters. “So the fact that it’s the first time — it’s very impressive to me personally.”
So what’s next for the nonstop nonagenarian? Since 2006, Bennett has earned seven top 40-charting albums on the Billboard 200 chart. Among those were his first No. 1s: Duets II (in 2011) and Cheek to Cheek (in 2014, with Lady Gaga). In 2011, he even notched his first hit song on the Billboard Hot 100 in nearly 44 years, with his Amy Winehouse duet on “Body and Soul” (from Duets II).
“There’ll always be something,” he promises. “We’ll keep going. I’m not retiring at all. And the audience and reviews are saying I’m in top shape. So who knows what will happen? But believe me, it’s just wonderful to be accepted throughout my whole life.”