After 68 years in limelight Tony Bennett wants 'to be remembered as a nice person'
OKLAHOMA CITY – For nearly seven decades, Tony Bennett has been belting our jazz standards and solidifying his status as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century. His resume can certainly attest to that: With over 50 million records sold and 19 Grammy Awards to his name, Bennett’s also somehow found the time to form the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in his native New York and record a best-selling jazz album with Lady Gaga.
Not bad for a guy who started out as a singing waiter in Astoria, Queens.
Luckily for fans of the 90-year old crooner, it doesn’t look like he plans on stopping anytime soon. As a part of his 2017 tour, Bennett will perform at the River Spirit Event Center in Tulsa this Friday. It’ll certainly be a night for the nostalgic, mixing all of his signatures hits (“I Left My Heart In San Francisco”) with timeless jazz classics (“Fly Me to the Moon”). This tour may be a celebration of Bennett’s 90th year, but he certainly performs with the same passion and enthusiasm as he did in his thirties.
And before he hits the stage this Friday, I posed a few questions about everything from his time as a foot soldier in World War II to his unlikely friendship with Lady Gaga.
You’ve previously called the music of America from the Twenties to the Forties a “renaissance period”, and you still draw upon it for your albums and performances today. What is it about this music that you love so much?
That time was the Golden Era of songwriting where you had this incredible collection of master songwriters crafting and developing the popular standard which I like to call the Great American Songbook. When you think of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gerswhin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Yip Harburg, Harry Warren… So many magnificent talents all working at the same time to create this genre of music. To me, it’s one of the greatest cultural gifts that America has given the world and it's timeless.
Was there ever a time you worried that your music career might falter? I know with the rise of rock in the ‘60s, jazz took a backseat to other genres. Did you ever consider changing your sound to fit with the times or were you determined to stick with what you loved?
When I first started out I had the premise that I didn't just want to have "hit songs," I wanted to create a "hit catalog." I learned from my mother who was a dressmaker and never liked to work on shoddy materials to stay with quality. At one point I asked Count Basie, when popular standards got pushed aside as rock 'n' roll came on the scene and his answer was so perfect – he said "Why change an apple?" And he was right: here I am at 90 still performing to sold out audiences around the world – and getting a great reaction every night to the songs that I love to perform and have been singing all my life. So I think it has all worked out.
Right after serving in World War II, you studied Bel Canto singing in New York. What about that style appealed to you and do you still study it regularly?
That's right! I was a foot soldier in World War II and under the GI Bill of Rights I was able to attend The American Theatre Wing and study bel canto technique, which means "beautiful singing" and is what most opera singers are trained with for their vocal education. There was a great saying back in the day: The first day you don't do your scales you know; on the second day you don't practice the band knows it; and by the third day the audience knows it. So I still use some of the techniques I studied back then to keep in shape.
Your career spans nearly seven decades of the music industry, so what’s the biggest change you’ve noticed about it from when you first started out?
I was able to catch the end of the vaudeville circuit where you had a series of theaters you could perform at and "be bad before you got good." Today, young performers get posted on the internet or on national television so at the very onset they are exposed to millions of people and they get very famous quite quickly, which can be daunting. It doesn't give them time to develop their style and individuality in an atmosphere that isn't constantly being scrutinized so I think that makes it very challenging. Plus everything is being reviewed instantly so it’s not like when I started, where things got out in the public by the next day's papers. So I think that adds an extra level of pressure on young perfumers starting out.
One of your most notable and seemingly unlikely musical partners is Lady Gaga. What is it about her that stuck out to you as somebody you’d like to collaborate with?
I love working with Lady Gaga – she is an authentic artist and she works very hard and makes sure every detail is perfect. I had seen her perform at a charity event that we were both doing
the Robin Hood Foundation – she sang the song "Orange Colored Sky," which Nat King Cole had made famous and I was very impressed with her singing and her connection to the audience – how she communicated the song. We met backstage and I asked her to record with me on Duets II and we had such a good time that we made another album together, Cheek To Cheek and then toured around the world. She is Italian-American just like me so we understand each other.
Most of your contemporaries have retreated from public view or retired from music entirely, but you’re still going just as strongly today as you did in the ‘60s. What about music motivates and continues to engage you?
I have been very fortunate that I have two passions – music and painting – and have been able to make a living doing the things I love most. I understand that if you are in a job you don’t care for then it’s a rush to retire but I still love performing for people and presenting them with the best popular music I can find to entertain them. If they leave the theatre and say to themselves, "I really enjoyed that show tonight," then that makes me very happy.
My personal introduction to you was your incredible MTV Unplugged performance in 1994. It showcased such a unique side to your music and introduced you to an entirely new generation of listeners.
Now that you mention it was 1994, it's hard to believe that all happened over 20 years ago! I was thrilled to introduce the Great American Songbook to the MTV Generation and now they are all parents and possibly grandparents so I hope that this music continues to live on. I remember one of my most cherished moments at that time happened backstage when a father and a son told me that listening to my music was the first time they had agreed upon anything in a long time. That was so fantastic to hear.
You were always active on civil rights and other political issues as far back as the 1940s. Are you still engaged in such issues and are there any causes that you feel very passionately about?
I consider myself a humanist and my good friend Ella Fitzgerald always said to me, "Tony, we are all here." It's a simple statement but so profound so it's my continuing hope that everyone on the planet will discover what we all have in common and not focus on what makes us different. And the creative arts is one of the best ways in which people of different backgrounds and faiths can come together in agreement. It’s why my wife Susan and I decided to start Exploring the Arts, which supports arts education in public high schools. We now have 33 schools we partner with in New York City and Los Angeles and our dream is to be involved in every state as developing and supporting young students in the arts makes them better citizens of the world.
Your catalog is filled with countless hits, but is there one particular song (or even album) that you’re most proud of?
A few years ago, my record label, Columbia released one of the largest boxed sets of my music in the company's history and I went through all those records and was so pleased with each and every track – as I mentioned before I had tried to create a "hit catalog" and it felt great to have achieved that. I have to say the two records I did with the late Bill Evans are definitely top favorites of mine. Bill taught me to just go for "truth and beauty" as an artist so I strive for that.
Jazz has had something of a resurgence lately, with a film like La La Land helping the genre connect with younger audiences. Do you hope these new generations continue to embrace jazz and its roots?
I haven't had a chance to see it yet but as far as I am concerned, jazz is America's classical music so I am always hoping that it gets more attention here in the U.S. When I travel out of the country to Europe and Asia it's much more part of the mainstream. I love working and recording with jazz musicians as they are masters and that is why they can be spontaneous on stage which I love as it keeps every performance fresh and in the moment.
After 19 Grammy Awards, 70 albums, and four best-selling books, you’ve rightfully claimed your status as a living legend. But what do you personally want your legacy to be for all of the Amy Winehouses and Lady Gagas out there who look up to you?
I just want to be remembered as a nice person.
For information about Bennett’s concert on Friday, visit riverspirittulsa.com.
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