What I Learned From Tony Bennett

A woman steps up to the table at an Italian restaurant. She is elderly, but as she smiles at Tony Bennett, her eyes widen like a teenager’s. “I heard you perform once in a place near here after the war. Oh, you sang wonderfully. I was with a fella that night.” She blushes. “I don’t remember the fella anymore. But I remember you.”

You want to know why Tony Bennett endures? You don’t forget him once you’ve heard him—whether it was in a local hall in the 1940s, on a big stage with Count Basie in the 1960s or on MTV in the 1990s. It is not just the velvet punch of his unique voice or the impeccable swing that seems to be part of his breathing—it is the joy that Bennett brings to every performance, the sense that you are witnessing someone madly in love with his art and his audience.

There’s a wonderful story that Bennett tells about his father, Giovanni (John) Benedetto. As a child in the Calabria region of Italy, Giovanni had such a lovely singing voice that he would climb the nearby mountain and sing to the village below.

These days, as he nears his 80th birthday, Tony Bennett is continuing his father’s legacy. Only he’s not singing to a village. He’s singing to the world. Bennett, after nearly 60 years of break-your-heart- beautiful music, is as passionate about his craft as when he started. To spend a day with him, as we did recently in New York, is to witness an artist walking through his own mural, amazed and delighted at the colors of his life.

What makes Tony Bennett so…satisfied?

Reason No. 1: He loves what he does.

“It’s funny,” he says, sitting by a window overlooking Central Park in his spacious Manhattan apartment, a view he often paints. “When I was 14, I would put on a pair of roller skates and skate all day, you know? All over Queens. Sometimes over the bridge, up into Harlem and back. I loved it. I was content.

“And, strangely enough, at my age right now, I feel like I’m on those skates again. A certain contentment has settled over me.”

One is tempted to say that contentment is easy when you’ve sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, had your artwork hang in the Smithsonian, performed for nine Presidents and the Queen of England, and been honored by the Grammy Awards, the Kennedy Center and the United Nations.

But many a public hero has been privately miserable. Bennett’s warm, crinkling eyes, boyish smile and relaxed conversation suggest a man who is truly, deeply at peace.

Reason No. 2: He is not a “things” person. “I don’t own a car or a boat,” says Bennett. “I don’t own a house. [His apartment is rented.] I’m on a perpetual vacation. I stay in a perpetual creative zone at all times. I’ll go to Hawaii, and I’ll meet some Americans on the beach, and they’ll say, ‘Isn’t this beautiful? But what do we do around here?’ For me, I’m in Hawaii, but I’m singing. I don’t need a break. I’m already doing what I really want to do.”

Reason No. 3: He has held firm to his ideals. Bennett, who began his music career after serving in Europe during World War II, dreamed only of honoring the great American songbook with tasteful performances. This brought him great success in the 1950s but caused heartache by the ’60s, when rock ’n’ roll was the rage. “It wasn’t me. It was a major, major change. The record company said, ‘Well, you gotta do it.’ They started threatening.”

Bennett got pushed into recording an album called Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! with ill-fitting tunes such as “Eleanor Rigby.” It so bothered him that he got physically sick while making it. “To this day, if I had my druthers, I would take it out of my catalog.”

Refusing to go that route again eventually cost him a record label. But he held to his artistic beliefs. After a dry spell in the 1970s and ’80s, Bennett was rediscovered by the MTV generation in the 1990s. His new CDs are celebrated for the very elegance that was once seen as “square.”

“When you do something greedily,” he says now, hands folded in his lap, “you might make a lot of money, but that in no way makes you happy. When you do something well and with care…when you hit the pillow at night, you can say, ‘At least I did it right.’”

The car bumps through the streets of blue-collar Astoria, Queens—home of the fictional Archie Bunker and the place where Tony Bennett truly left his heart (sorry, San Francisco). “The workers that make this great city,” he says, looking out the window, “the teachers, the secretaries, the firemen—they all live here.”

This is reason No. 4 for Bennett’s quiet satisfaction: He never forgets where he came from. Although raised in the projects and able to remember nights with no food on the table, Bennett still gets misty when recalling the old neighborhood: Sunday afternoons with the extended family, relatives playing guitars and ukuleles, young Tony singing to entertain them. When Tony was 10, his father died suddenly, and he was sent away for a spell to live with relatives in upstate New York. Tony missed home desperately. Once he returned, he never wanted to let go again.

And whenever success gets too heady, Bennett is pulled back to his humble roots. Once, in the mid-1960s, Bennett was buying into the “star” treatment in Las Vegas, traveling with an embarrassing entourage that consumed his attention and mooched off his success. But every morning, through the window, he noticed a man walking alone in front of the hotel.

“Who is that guy?” he asked one day.

“Jack Benny,” he was told.

“What’s he doing out there?”

“He’s thinking.”

That hit Bennett hard. He remembered the thinking people in Queens who taught him his crafts—his music teachers and the art instructor who saw a teenaged Tony doing chalk drawings in the street and invited him to sketch sessions at a nearby park.

“Those people changed my life,” he says.

He dumped the entourage. He got back to who he was: the kid from Astoria who dreamed only of singing and painting and trying to be good.

And now here he is, dapper as always, in a suit and tie, at the door of his most unique contribution: a public high school near Astoria that he helped found five years ago. Typical of his humility, Bennett did not name it after himself. It’s called the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, to honor his friend and mentor, who “was always so good to me.”

Still, the moment Bennett enters the hallways, he is the star, surrounded by teenagers more than 60 years his junior, kids in jeans and sneakers, some carrying violins or paintbrushes. “Please sign my yearbook, Mr. Bennett.” “Mine next, please!”

He has come full circle, the student turned teacher. But Tony Bennett—who in September releases a new duets album featuring artists such as Paul McCartney, Elton John and Barbra Streisand—is still very much the same kid on roller skates, his father’s son, singing from the mountain.

“Life is a gift, a magnificent gift,’’ he says, smiling. As he walks off amid a cluster of young fans, you realize he means it. And that is the real secret of Tony Bennett’s contentment.

 

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