Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // // Courtesy of Columbia Records, Kelsey Bennett, Kevin Mazur, Mark Seliger and Benedetto Family Archives
In recognition of the Center for the Performing Arts’ ability to draw in some of the world’s highest caliber of musical talent, Carmel Monthly is proud to dedicate this issue’s cover story to highlight and welcome back to Carmel, Indiana, one of America’s most beloved icons, Tony Bennett.
Bennett’s May 8 performance will be his third at the Palladium since he first appeared on the world-renowned stage in 2014. Bennett will bring his “I Left My Heart” Tour to the Center, performing his latest chart-topping album.
Bennett’s 2014 collection of jazz standards with Lady Gaga, “Cheek to Cheek,” made him the oldest artist ever to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 pop album chart. Just last year, his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” was inducted into the National Recording Registry, and Bennett struck gold again with “Love Is Here to Stay,” a celebration of the Gershwins with longtime friend Diana Krall. The new album, which topped the Billboard Jazz Albums chart, was nominated for two 2019 Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
Bennett has received a total of 19 Grammy Awards, two of which were presented to him for his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Millions of Bennett’s records have sold globally, both platinum and gold, since his first string of Columbia singles that were released in the early 1950s, including such chart-toppers as “Because of You,” “Rags to Riches” and a remake of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Having 24 songs placed in the Top 40, Bennett is one of a handful of artists to have albums charting in every decade between the 1950s-1990s and in the first two decades of the 21st century.
A champion of the virtues and values represented by the Great American Songbook, Bennett has introduced many songs into the Songbook that have since become standards for pop music. A Kennedy Center Honoree, an NEA Jazz Master, a recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song as well as the United Nations Humanitarian and Citizen of the World honors, Bennett celebrated his 92nd tour around the sun last August. As inarguably the most distinguished singer of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bennett’s ability to bridge multiple generations has maintained the affection and respect of audiences of all ages for his unparalleled talent.
In this exclusive, in-depth interview with Bennett, he shared a few of his most memorable experiences and influences throughout his life and career.
I asked Bennett who his “idols” were and the artists that he studied and emulated as a youth, and as anticipated, he spoke of one of his greatest influencers, Frank Sinatra.
“I was one of the original ‘bobby soxers’ who flocked to the Paramount Theater to see Frank Sinatra, so he was very much an influence on me,” Bennett shared. “Throughout the years, he would support me and give me a boost. I remember going to him when I got my first TV special – it was a summer replacement series for “The Perry Como Show,” but there was no budget for the show, so we had minimal sets, no budget for guest stars and I was nervous. I decided to seek out advice from Frank who was at the Paramount Theater, and I was warned he could be a bit tough, but I went backstage after the show and knocked on his dressing room door. He said, ‘C’mon in, kid,’ and couldn’t have been nicer to me. I told him what my concerns were, and he told me that it was ‘a good thing that you’re nervous because it shows you care, and the audience will pick up on that and will root for you.’ I never forgot that, and I still get ‘butterflies’ before I go on stage. I think of Frank, and I know that it’s when those butterflies go away that you need to start worrying.”
Bennett’s first TV appearance was on a show called “Songs for Sale” that he did with Rosemary Clooney.
“The premise of it [the show] was they had amateur songwriters send in their songs, and then Rosemary and I would sing the songs on the show and one would get picked a winner,” Bennett recalled. “It was a fun premise, but for Rosie and I, it got a bit complicated as back then, they had people holding cue cards with the song lyrics – no teleprompter like they have today. And the crew sometimes had a tendency to get a bit tipsy or would have fun with us, and they would hold the cue cards upside down. So, whenever that happened, Rosie and I would just make up our own lyrics. I think it taught me to be ready for anything when you are in a live performance and to be spontaneous and have fun with it.”
I asked Bennett where he was in his career at the genesis of the “Because of You” album and how that album and song’s release and success changed the trajectory of his career.
“Well, to quote another song title of mine, it came ‘just in time,’ he said. “My first single for Columbia when I signed in 1950 was ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams,’ and it was a semi-hit at the time, but I had released a few other singles that didn’t take off. So, by 1951, the record label was telling me that I needed another hit, or they may drop me from the label, which is the same pressure that young artists starting out today have to contend with as well. I had a ‘do or die’ recording session with Percy Faith set up, and we talked about the singles that I had put out that didn’t connect, and they were all very dramatic. Percy handed me the music for ‘Because of You’ and said, ‘Let’s do this one but take it easier and don’t push for the drama. Just be more natural.’”
Bennett continued, “When ‘Because of You’ came out, it didn’t become an instant radio hit, so I was worried as this was my last shot, but within a few weeks, it started getting played on jukeboxes. Usually, it’s the other way around and the songs were hits on the radio, and then the public would put their nickel in to hear it on a jukebox. Finally, it got popular on radio and was a #1 hit for 10 weeks. But it was really the public putting in those nickels into the jukebox that gave me the hit I needed to continue on recording, so I have never taken the public for granted ever since, and I sing for them always.”
A World War II veteran, Bennett served in the 63rd Infantry Division, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, participated in the liberation of a concentration camp and marched side-by-side with Dr. Martin Luther King.
“Being a foot soldier in WWII made me a pacifist, and I feel that violence is the lowest form of human behavior,” Bennett stated. “Ella Fitzgerald was a dear friend, and she always had a simple but very deep way of putting things. She would often say to me, ‘Tony, we’re all here.’ And that’s the truth as we share this planet together as one human race, and our focus should be on supporting each other, not fighting and magnifying our differences as we have more in common than what separates us. So, I consider myself a humanist.”
When asked what Bennett’s favorite decade was as an artist and which was the most challenging, he replied, “That’s a very good question, and I don’t really look back at the past too much as I like to keep learning and moving forward, but I think you find as you get older, it’s the challenges that you have had in life that have taught you the most rather than the successes that have come easily. In the ‘70s, I was at a bit of a crossroads as I had decided to take a break from recording with Columbia Records, the label I had started with as they were pushing all the artists to sing rock songs.
“I went to England to live for a few years and, during that time, worked with Lena Horne who taught me everything there is to know about professionalism and giving all of yourself to the audience, no matter what was going on offstage. And it was also during that time that I made two records with the master jazz pianist Bill Evans, which to this day are recordings that fans and the critics say are their favorites. So, although at the time, leaving Columbia seemed like a setback, in the end, it was during that time that I had creative freedom that turned into opportunities that were life-changing for me and my career. As to the favorite decade, that is tough to say as I tend to like exactly where I am right now, but I have to say working with Lady Gaga over this past decade has been a lot of fun.”
Bennett and his wife, Susan, are dedicated advocates for the incorporation of arts in education. Together, they founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York City.
“We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Exploring the Arts nonprofit that my wife Susan and I created to support arts education as at that time we, like so many parents, were seeing the demise of quality arts education in the public school curriculum,” Bennett explained. “So, our first mission was to build a state-of-the-art high school, and we got support from the Department of Education and private donors. We founded Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, and its permanent home is in my hometown of Astoria, so that is a wonderful feeling to give back to the community.”
He continued, “Once we had the school well underway, we thought why stop here? Now we partner with 45 public high schools in both New York City and Los Angeles, targeting the areas where students may not have the ability to take private lessons in dance, music or acting, so their only exposure to a formal arts education is during the school day. We have found that when kids have arts in the schools, they like coming to school and, more importantly, staying in school and graduating. It was one of the reasons why we chose to implement our support with high schools as that is the time that students are realizing that adulthood is around the corner, and I feel the arts bring people together and allows them to recognize what we share in common with each other rather than what makes us different. It’s our connection to our shared humanity, and I think it makes students better citizens, so even if they don’t pursue a career in the arts, they have this foundation that is an important part of helping them discover who they are as a person.”
Bennett has worked with numerous talented souls over the decades, such as Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, k.d. lang, Lady Gaga and the late Amy Winehouse.
“I already told you about my first meeting with Frank Sinatra, but I will also share the thing that he did that I will be forever grateful for and that took place when he was doing ‘The Main Event’ special in 1974,” Bennett shared. “Sinatra knew that I wasn’t able to come to the live show in person as my mother was very sick at the time. My mom and I watched the special when it aired, and in between one of the songs, Frank said that I was his favorite guy in the world, and I knew he said that because my mom would see it. She was so overjoyed by his praise that it meant everything to me that Frank would take the time during the show to acknowledge me.”
Bennett stated that he loved working with Stevie Wonder on his first “DUETS” album.
“I remember when I came into the studio, he was at the piano just improvising a jazz melody, and it could have been Oscar Peterson playing at the piano as Stevie was that good,” he exclaimed. “I would love to do a piano jazz album with Stevie.”
Bennett puts k.d. lang up there with some of music’s greatest vocal talents.
“When I first heard k.d. lang sing at an event at Radio City, I knew I had to record with her. She is up there with Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald with such a natural gift. It is astounding,” he said. “I loved touring with her, and the only part of that which made me nervous when we were on stage together is that she sings barefoot, and I was always worried about stepping on her toes accidentally.”
Bennett spoke about the late Amy Winehouse, whom he mourned along with her friends and fans the world over.
“We lost Amy Winehouse way too soon as she was a true jazz artist just like Billie Holiday. She was completely honest in her singing and fearless,” he said. “When we recorded ‘Body and Soul,’ she experimented with her phrasing, and it was so impressive. I could tell she was getting frustrated as she wasn’t finding the approach she was searching for, and we took a break and I said to her, ‘Do you know the singer Dinah Washington as you remind me of her?’ Her face lit up, and she told me how much she loved Dinah. I shared some stories, and then the next take of ‘Body and Soul’ was simply perfect. I would have loved – as of course we all would – to have had the chance to see how she would grow and develop as a vocalist over time. She was one of a kind and truly genius.”
There is no escaping the incredible magic that takes place on stage or screen when Bennett and Lady Gaga are performing a duet.
“My first impression of Lady Gaga when we were thinking about artists to record with for ‘DUETS II’ was what an accomplished pianist she was,” Bennett emphasized. “Then shortly thereafter, she and I were both performing at a benefit event for the Robin Hood Foundation, and I watched her perform and was amazed by how incredible she was as a live performer. The audience just adored her. So after the show, I went backstage to meet her for the first time and met her parents as well, and I asked if she would consider recording a song with me on the album. She didn’t hesitate a second and said yes. When we recorded ‘Lady Is A Tramp,’ after the session, she went to every person in the studio and thanked them, which was a rare thing to do. So I just love her as a person, and as an entertainer she is exceptional. It didn’t surprise me at all that she would succeed in the movies the same way she succeeds as a recording artist. She can do it all.”
Bennett was incredibly thoughtful with his time and responses and ended the conversation with his outlook on life at 92 years young.
“Personally, for me, I have tried to stay positive and avoid stress as much as possible,” Bennett said. “As I said before, when you have the perspective of having lived quite a few decades, you realize that the struggles have taught you something, and it’s better to work through them and not run from them, so that is part of my philosophy. I like to think that every day is an opportunity to learn something new, and that makes each day exciting for me.”