Tony Bennett once waited for my mother to get out of the bathroom. You won’t read that in any of the glowing obituaries being written for him this weekend, but it’s true. He was performing at the Fox Theatre for a charity benefit I had organized, and it happened to be my mother’s birthday. Bennett, ever accommodating, had agreed to sing her a surprise “Happy Birthday” on stage.
Only problem was, she didn’t know about it. So when the moment came, I called for her to come up out of the audience. Nothing. Everyone looked around. Finally, a friend shouted, “She’s in the bathroom!”
Tony laughed. He waited. He made some small talk. Eventually, my mother emerged, confused but smiling, and got to be serenaded by one of the greatest — and clearly the most patient — singers of our time.
Everyone who knew him has a Tony Bennett story like that. I was blessed to have many. We met nearly 20 years ago, when I was assigned to do a magazine profile. We traveled around his old neighborhood in Queens, visited the school for the arts he created, gazed out the window of his Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park, talked about music and painting and life.
By the time we were finished, I had not only met a fascinating subject, I had made a friend.
We stayed in contact over the years. He performed for numerous charity events I organized (his son once joked that his father did so many free performances, his nickname was “Tony Benefit”). We had meals together. Took drives together. My wife’s name is Janine and a few weeks after Tony met her, we received a package at the house: sheet music to the song “Last Time I Saw Jeannine.” Tony had highlighted the name in yellow marker. He thought she would like it.
We once stood on a stage of a concert space together and Tony tested the acoustics by going “Bop!” and telling me to try it. I did. My voice came back to me in a soft echo. Then he did it. His voice came back like a beautiful wave.
That was the artistry of Tony Bennett. He could make a single note melodic.
An artist from the very start
With the sad news of his death on Friday, just shy of his 97th birthday, Tony Bennett is being recalled around the world, one smiling story at a time.
My favorite story is actually before he was born. As a child in Calabria, Italy, Tony’s father, Giovanni Benedetto, supposedly had such a beautiful singing voice, that he would climb the hills above his village and sing to the people below.
That DNA of generous performing coursed through his son’s veins. Anthony Benedetto was born Aug. 3, 1926, in Queens, the first child in his family to be born in a hospital. He grew up poor but loved, surrounded by music and influenced by teachers. It was a teacher who saw his chalk drawings on a sidewalk and encouraged him to study art. It was a teacher who, after Tony returned from fighting in World War II, showed Bennett the bel canto style of singing that kept his voice sonorous and powerful into his 90s.
Bennett never stopped learning. I once described him as an artist walking through his own mural, amazed and delighted at the colors of his life.
“I’ve been blessed with the fact that I’ve always known what I wanted to do,” he told me. “Sing and paint.”
“Do you ever sing and paint at the same time?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, laughing.
An unmistakable, indescribable voice
Someone recently wrote that in person Tony Bennett had a habit of name dropping, talking about his performances, citing his own charitable work — yet you never resented it, you only wanted to hear more. It’s true. I think that’s because deep down, when you were with him, you sensed the honesty, decency and innocence of an artist who lived by a handful of ideals and never wavered.
Here was a guy who so loved the American songbook — the work of Gershwin, Porter, Ellington, etc. — that he refused to change his musical style, even when it cost him his record label, his manager and his bookings. A guy who was so pure in his tastes that when forced into the studio to record lesser pop songs, he got physically sick. “I regurgitated,” he said.
Here was a man who started his own school for young artists, but named it after Frank Sinatra, because Sinatra “was always so good to me.” A man who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., spoke out against war, was in love with peace.
A man who spent decades on the road, never owned a car or a boat — heck, he never even owned a house! (His beloved New York apartment was rented.) He traveled with his paints and brushes and would often stay at private homes with good light or scenery, so he could paint during the day, before singing at night.
He won a Grammy in 1962 for his signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” (a song he recorded having never spent any real time in that city) and, nearly 50 years later, earned another Grammy and a No. 1 Billboard record for a song he did with Lady Gaga.
Yep. Bennett did duets with Paul McCartney, Wynton Marsalis, Amy Winehouse, Willie Nelson. He performed for countless presidents, foreign dignitaries, the Queen of England. Created instant recognition with hits like “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Who Can I Turn To?” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” yet considered his best work the lesser-selling albums, performed with jazz giants like Bill Evans, Nat Adderley, and Art Blakey.
His voice was hard to describe but easy to recognize, tough to evaluate but simple to appreciate. He brought songs to life. He swung when the song called for swinging and broke your heart when the song called for heartbreak. At the Fox Theatre, he closed the night by eschewing the microphone and singing an a cappella, “Fly Me To the Moon,” his voice swirling off the rafters and echoing back to him like a lyrical boomerang.
“I’ve been blessed with a passion,” he once said of his singing. “It’s not that I want to do it, I have to do it.”
Fads came and went. Tony refused to change his art.
Yet when it mattered most, he changed his life.
Cruel disease took him, but not his legacy
He told me once that during the 1970s, when his music was out of style and he had fallen into a bad drug habit, he was staying in Las Vegas with an entourage of hangers-on. Every morning, he would see a man walking around the hotel parking lot by himself. He finally asked who the man was and was told it was the famous comedian Jack Benny.
“What’s he doing out there?’ Bennett asked.
That affected Bennett. An artist needs time to think, he realized. To remember his true purpose. He got rid of the entourage, broke the drug habit, and promised to stay loyal to his artistic road map, no matter where it took him.
And oh, where it took him. There’s not an important venue he hasn’t played. Not a region of the world he hasn’t enthralled people. He did an MTV Unplugged show and joked that “I’ve been unplugged my whole career.” He played the final concerts at Shea Stadium with Billy Joel. He performed at the Glastonbury Festival in England, wearing a suit and a tie. A larger-than-life statue of him was erected in San Francisco. He was given a lifetime achievement Grammy — then won some more.
Tony Bennett had an acclaimed first act, a sobering second act, a redemptive third act, a stunning fourth act and a blessed fifth act. Yes. He got five acts. When you hold the record for oldest person to ever have a No. 1 album of new material, you wind up even as you’re winding down.
But this world takes us all, no matter how beautifully we affect it. Seven years ago, Tony was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the final months, he reportedly lost the ability to recognize even familiar people, but hung onto his memory of music and lyrics. That figures. A man with a song in his heart will hear it until the final beat.
Good luck finding anyone to say a negative word about Tony Bennett. You won’t. The world has lost a great artist. His family has lost its scion. Those lucky enough to know him even briefly have lost a friend, the kind who called you on your birthday or Christmas Eve (as he did with me several times), the kind who waits for your mother to get out of the bathroom so he can sing to her.
“You know, recently a realization hit me,” he once mused as we sat together in New York. “There’s no such thing as an arrival. It’s a perpetual journey until the day you die.”
Tony Bennett’s journey, sadly, has come to an end. But his legacy never will. The first day I met him, an older woman approached and gushed about having heard him sing decades earlier at a small club.
“I was with a fella that night,” she said. “I don’t remember the fella anymore. But I remember you.”
Who could forget?