The Best Is Yet To Come: Catching Up With Tony Bennett
In August, Tony Bennett — Anthony Dominick Benedetto to his mama and iconic crooner to a worshipful worldwide audience — celebrated his 90th birthday with a star-studded bash at New York’s Rainbow Room. A merry, multigenerational hodgepodge of Bennett’s family members, bandmates and famous friends from Lady Gaga to Paul McCartney joined in the fun — a testament to the Queens-born entertainer’s zest for life and laser focus on the good. That energy and unwavering respect for time-tested songs and songwriters kept Bennett going when record buyers and radio stations turned their attention to rock ’n’ roll. After some dark days in the 1970s, Bennett saw the light. With the help of his son Danny, Bennett redefined his career and devotion to the Great American Songbook for a new generation of music fans, recording a series of Grammy-winning songs and albums featuring delicious duets with industry icons such as Barbra Streisand and Elton John and upstart pop stars like Gaga and the late Amy Winehouse. The rest, as they say, is history … history the ageless Bennett is still happily writing, filling his days with sold out tour dates and new recording projects, and promoting his latest book, Just Getting Started. We spoke with him not long after he was feted with a heartwarming evening of music and memories at Radio City Music Hall. Billed as Tony Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come, the star-packed event will aired on NBC, offering fans old and new a fresh opportunity to get to know Bennett as a world citizen, humanitarian, inspiration and unrivaled performer.
You project such positivity, though life hasn’t always been easy for you. How did you embrace that philosophy?
Tony Bennett: It comes from a love of performing. I get so much reaction from my audiences throughout the world. I’ve been sold out at least 99 percent of the time, in whatever country I’ve been in. I’m blessed with the fact that the public admires my work, and I just never want to let them down. I like to be consistent, and give them a full performance, so they walk out feeling very good about what happened that night.
Is wanting to share the power of that very special give-and-take the catalyst for launching your Exploring the Arts foundation?
My wife is a wonderful teacher and we ended up starting this. Now I have 35 [partner] schools in America, high schools that get kids ready for college. They have access to a creative approach to an education. They learn painting, music and art — doing something creative. Thirty-five schools that teach anybody to keep creating even after they leave and to keep a creative attitude about what they can contribute to the world. … That they have to work to make a living — but to enjoy that work.
Do you remember the first time you heard a piece of music, a voice, a song that made you go “Oh my gosh, this is for me!”?
Well, it’s so funny that you mentioned that. That is something that really happened in my life. We were in a Southern town, rehearsing in the afternoon, and there was a bartender setting up a bar for the evening’s performance. We found the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” — because we were going to San Francisco for the first time, so we said “Let’s do that song when we go to San Francisco” — and as we were singing it, the bartender came out from behind the bar and he said, “I don’t mean to interrupt you guys, but if you record that song, I’m going to be the first one to buy that record!” That was the tip-off to [Bennett’s signature song] “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”!
You are also a highly regarded painter. Do you find that your fine art informs your musical performance and vice versa?
That’s a wonderful question! Because when you paint, you learn so much about singing. When you sing, you learn so much about painting. It’s knowing what to leave out, not what to put in. It makes the painting spontaneous and alive. It’s not just like, “Well, it’s not finished yet!” You leave it unfinished. You work spontaneously. It’s the same with music, and it’s the same with art — knowing when to stop. You look at it and say, “It’s finished,” even though there’s blank spots there that could be filled in. You keep it alive.
Did you learn that from experience or from a mentor?
Well, it’s funny. Jack Benny and George Burns, two great comedians that lived a long life, they met me when I first had a hit song with “Because of You” and “Cold, Cold Heart.” Million-selling records. They said, “Now son, [you] really hit there with these two songs, but it’s going to take you seven years to learn how to do it.” Boy, were they right! It took seven years to learn just when to stop and when to go, what to do, and not to stay on the stage too long and bore the public. You learn what to leave out, not what to put in. I remember meeting them again after about seven years. I said “Boy were you right! It takes a long time to really learn how to do stuff well.”
And you’re still learning and creating and inspiring.
I’ve never felt better! My doctor kicks me out of his office. He says, “There’s not a damn thing wrong with you! Don’t even bother me!” [Laughs]
So much the better for the world, Tony.
Well, thank you!
This article originally appeared the 2016 December issue of ReMIND Magazine