You may not know him for his paintings, but octogenarian Anthony Dominick Benedetto, better known as Tony Bennett, has won the hearts of art collectors the world over. He has three pieces on permanent loan to the Smithsonian, and created a piece in Sedona showcasing the majestic mountains vistas and peaks in the Arizona resort town.
Of course, Bennett is best known for his unmistakable vocals that have garnered him 19 Grammy Awards and chart-topping hit songs over the course of seven decades.
Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, but more importantly he has left an indelible footprint on the great American songbook, reaching music lovers the world over.
A true rags-to-riches story, Bennett grew up in Astoria, Queens, New York, during the Great Depression. He was 10 years old when his father died. Raised by his mother and host of extended Italian immigrant family, the young boy grew up listening to Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong.
In his teen years, the young Benedetto was a singing waiter, and it was at High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan where he began his tutelage in both music and painting. Before the young aspiring vocalist set his course as a performer, duty called. It was after being drafted to support the U.S. cause in World War II in 1944 that Benedetto experienced not only the horrors of war, but prejudice toward minorities.
Once home after the war, Bennett honed his chops at the American Theatre Wing on the G.I. Bill. He was soon discovered by Pearl Bailey and then by Bob Hope, who not only took the young singer under his wing, but made him change his stage name from Joe Bari to Tony Bennett by 1949.
In his first three years as a signed artist in the early '50s, he landed three No. 1s with “Because of You,” a remake of Hank Williams’ country song “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Rags to Riches”.
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In 1957, his long-time partnership with composer-pianist Ralph Sharon influenced the use of jazz-infused percussion and a collaboration with Nat “Cannonball” Adderley, Herbie Mann, and Art Blakely would come in the form the critically acclaimed The Beat of My Heart album.
Fate brought the George Cory and Douglass Cross-written song sheet to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to Sharon. First sung by contralto opera singer Claramae Turner, Bennett first sang the number in 1961 at the premier San Francisco supper club The Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel.
He recorded the song in 1962 ironically as a B-side to “Once Upon a Time," and while it climbed only as high as No. 19 on the charts, it earned Bennett his first two Grammy Awards, for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance.
More than a decade later, a second failed marriage, IRS troubles, and drug addiction appeared to have done him in. However, Bennett’s sons from his first marriage, Danny and Dae, stepped in and set Bennett on a career revival the likes of no other.
It was Danny who would introduce his father’s music to younger generations by working Bennett with current artists via Duets, while Dae became a pivotal recording engineer for his father.
The output of this revamped approach in 2006 was the album Duets: An American Classic in which Bennett sang standards with the likes of Barbara Streisand, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Celine Dion, and Stevie Wonder.
On 2011’s follow-up compilation, Duets II, Bennett became the oldest recording artist to hit No. 1. with help from Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and more. The duet cover of "Body and Soul” sung with Winehouse won for a Grammy for Best Pop Duo or Group Performance.
Coming full circle, Bennett was honored in 2016 with the unveiling of an 8-foot high statue of his likeness in front of the very same Fairmont Hotel where he debuted his signature song 55 years earlier.
New Times caught up with Bennett a few weeks before he had embarked on a European leg of his ongoing tour celebrating his 90 years. After stopping in Italy, Spain, Ireland, France, Scotland, and England, he returns to the U.S. and plays on the legendary Celebrity Theatre stage on Thursday, December 7. (He was originally slated to play the Phoenix venue on Tuesday, July 11, but that date was rescheduled.) He last played Celebrity in 1986. Bennett discussed respecting one’s vocal talent, the golden era of songwriting, the family business, his unquenchable thirst for learning, and a possible future duet with Beyoncé.
Besides being a fan of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole (both of whom you met), you were taught to sing in the classic Italian Bel Canto form. How did that create a path of vocal success and longevity for you?
Bel Canto means beautiful singing and is used mostly by opera singers. There is a saying that if you don't do your vocal exercises on the first day, you know it; on the second day, the band knows it; and by the third day, the audience knows it. So the training that I received at the American Theatre Wing gave me an excellent foundation for keeping my voice in shape.
Tony, can you expound on your statement, in reference to masters such as Pablo Picasso, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire? "Right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older."
Well, I think if you say to yourself, "I don't have anything else to learn," that is when creativity gets stifled. I always see each day as an opportunity to learn something new, and there are so many projects that I have in mind that I want to make happen. And the technology now is so incredible, so for example, if I want to study all the paintings of a particular artist I have an app on my iPad and instantly all their works appear. So I don't even have to go to the museum to view them.
You fought on the front lines of WWII and saw up close the horrors of battle, which led you to become a pcifist. How much are those memories still there and how much did your friendship with racially diverse troops inspire you to becoming a civil rights activist such as marching on Selma in '65 and years later with apartheid?
I am against all forms of violence, and Ella Fitzgerald puts it perfectly as she used to say to me, "Tony, we are all here." We share this planet with each other and we have more in common as humans than differences.
You have run the gamut of collaboration and performing with some of the other greats of the music business from Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to Paul McCartney, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Bono, Michael Bublé, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Josh Groban, Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles. What was the common thread that drew you to them, and who among the old era and new era is on your bucket list of performers you would have liked to have performed with or still could perform with?
We always looked for a proper involvement with the duets we recorded so it was a real collaboration with each artist so everyone was comfortable creatively. I have been fortunate to have worked with so many legendary performers over the years — and don't forget Judy Garland, who I adored. I would have loved to have recorded with Louis Armstrong — we both lived in Queens so we were friendly, but we never made an album together. Louis really taught us all how to sing and entertain. And I met Beyoncé at the Grammy Awards, and we talked about working together some day, so I hope that might come about.
From among your many awards, you have seven honorary doctorates, all the Grammys, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and being a Kennedy Center Honoree, which honor do you most cherish and why?
The United Nations gave me their "Citizen of the World" award, and that meant a lot to me, as I have always wanted to bring the Great American Songbook to the world. I can perform in any theater on the planet, and the audiences love these popular standards which are a testament to the master craftsmen who wrote these songs in the first half of the 20th century.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned on this remarkable journey as a singer, father, humanitarian, celebrity, painter, and/or human being?
I think it's to stay positive as much as possible and avoid stress. Even when things don't go your way, there is always something to learn from the mistakes — even more so sometimes from when things are a success.
Much of fame, fortune, and success in this business is about being in the right place at the right time, Can you recall how the music manuscript to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was originally lost for nearly eight or so years, as the story goes, before it was found by your longtime accompanist Ralph Sharon and you were able to perform and then record it?
We were doing a run of shows that included an engagement at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Ralph was packing in New York City and he remembered that he had been sent sheet music of a song about that city so he found it in a drawer and brought it with him on the road. We thought it would just be a local hit when we performed it there, but instead it became my signature song. I have been commissioned all over the world because everyone loved this song so much.
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You have often said that the old songs are better than the new ones. Can you characterize what it is about the old songs that makes them better in your mind? Is it because you were a part of that classic pop and jazz era, or is there more to it?
There was a golden age of songwriting in the '20s, '30s, and '40s where you had Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin all composing popular standards. It was just an exceptional level of crafting lyrics and melody that created a treasure trove of songs that will last forever.
How much has it meant to have your own children be so crucial to your pop renaissance and modern-day success through collaboration with current pop singers?
I love having my family involved with me as they are all such creative people. My daughter Johanna created a film festival in New York City for first-time directors. My son Danny has been my manager for many years, and my other son Dae has been producing my records. And then my daughter Antonia has been on the road performing with me for quite some time. Even my granddaughter Kelsey is involved, as she takes photographs during my recording sessions.
Is “I Left My Heart in SF” your all-time fave song — or is there another, and if so what is it and why?
I love my signature song because it enabled me to perform it all over the world and gave me a great education along the way to travel to so many countries and meet people from every part of the world. I have been very blessed.
Tony Bennett is scheduled to perform at Celebrity Theatre on Thursday, December 7. Tickets are $78 and $132 via Celebrity Theatre's website.