He keeps coming back like a song.
(singer Tony Bennett)
Good Housekeeping - 4-1-95
People of every age, persuasion, and nationality overflowed the 1,450-seat showroom at Resorts International in Atlantic City last July. They were there to hear the singer none less than Frank Sinatra calls "the best in the business." At the end of his two-hour performance, the audience stood to give him a rousing ovation. Accepting their tribute, Tony Bennett was the picture of a most happy man.
He has every reason to be happy. At 68, an age when even top performers slip from public favor, Bennett's sold-out concert dates and hit Unplugged album prove he has never been more popular. And not just with his contemporaries. "Gen X," the twenty-something crowd, discovered him on TV shows such as The Simpsons and The Late Show with David Letterman, and quickly adopted him as their own.
Relaxing in his suite following his Resorts International performance, Bennett reflects, somewhat incredulously, on his current success: "Today's young people are the most enthusiastic audience I've ever had," he says. (He is obviously forgetting the day in February 1952 when some 2,000 wailing young women, clad in black dresses and veils, ringed New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral in mock mourning as Bennett married the first of his two wives there.) "And all I'm doing is what I've always done--sing good songs," he continues, shaking his head in bemused disbelief.
That audiences today are responding in even greater numbers to his music is icing on Bennett's cake. But it is more than just the acceptance of his music that leads him to say, "This is the best time of my life." Equally important is his hard-won acceptance of himself.
As he speaks of his past and present, cradling Boo (the Maltese given to him on Halloween 1991 by Susan Crow, the lady in his life), there is neither swagger nor self-pity in his voice.
He was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Astoria, N.Y., the son of an immigrant Italian grocer and his seamstress wife; she supported their three children after her husband died when Bennett was ten. Although raised during the Depression, Bennett's recollections are not of a difficult childhood, but of a fiercely loving mother and of a large, equally loving family that gathered each Sunday for pasta and song.
Bennett studied commercial art in high school (today he is an accomplished painter) and worked nights as a singing waiter. On graduation, he spent three years in the military, after which he began performing in clubs in and around New York City. Singer Pearl Bailey heard him at one, the Greenwich Village Inn, and was so impressed she told management that if they wanted her to fulfill her engagement the next week... "the kid stays."
A week later, "the kid" was again discovered, this time by Bob Hope, who came to see Bailey but left with a commitment from Bennett to join Hope and his touring show. A recording contract with Columbia soon followed, and in 1951, "Because of You" launched Bennett to the top of the charts. The equally popular "Stranger in Paradise" and "Rags to Riches" assured his fame.
Although having hit records is every pop singer's dream, Bennett maintains that, from the beginning, he aimed for longevity. "People like Bing (Crosby) and Sinatra told me not to sing songs that cater to one age group, but songs that appeal to everybody," he says. "And that's what I've done. And maybe because good songs last, that explains why I've lasted too."
He has also survived because he has, literally, dedicated his life to his art. Singer Rosemary Clooney, his friend of 45 years, says, "Tony is the only person I have ever known of whom I can safely say music is the most important thing in his life. Lord knows, he loves his kids, but music ... the man breathes it."
Still, he was plagued with doubts during the early years. In fact, he suffered from such intense stage fright that, before an opening night, "I'd have to soak in a tub filled with ice cubes to calm down, " he remembers. One summer, when he was asked to act as replacement host of Perry Como's TV show, he was so panic-stricken that he sought counsel from his idol, Frank Sinatra.
"Frank was appearing at the old Paramount Theatre. I staggered backstage one night all but whimpering... `Frank, I'm so nervous I don't know what to do.'
"Frank looked at me and said...`Kid, not to worry. People like nervousness. It tells them that you care, and that makes them root for you.' Although I still get butterflies, I'm able to handle them. But today, I can handle most things that I couldn't in the past. That comes with the knowledge gained from years of highs and lows and all the emotional adventures in between."
The last is a veiled reference to the "troubled times" of Tony Bennett. By the sixties, he was, in his words, "living the high life." Riding the crest of popularity with such enormous hits as "The Shadow of Your Smile" and his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," he was tasting what he then thought were the perks of fame. Although he resists being specific, Bennett drops tantalizing hints: "In the past, I've done almost everything to experience life. There was a time when I went through it all." He admits that had he persisted in his excesses, "I wouldn't be around now."
Today, reflecting on those years, Bennett says, "It was such a waste of time and energy. I'd stay up partying night after night because I thought that's what every successful entertainer was doing. I thought life was about wine, women, and song."
His marriages were casualties of those years. (His first, to Patricia Beech, ended in 1971; his second, to Sandra Grant, lasted from 1971 to 1984. He has two children by each of his wives.
"The long separations when I left home to play the clubs killed both marriages," he says. "But I had to go on the road. I was in vaudeville, and a vaudevillian goes where the work is. But for a marriage to work, both parties have to be there."
Asked why neither of his wives opted to travel with him, Bennett responds sadly, "I asked them to, but everyone thought that was nuts. Everyone but me."
It was the unwitting intervention of comedian Jack Benny that finally led Bennett away from the high life. He clearly remembers one early morning in the late sixties or early seventies, when he first saw the solitary figure of a man walking up and down the Strip in Las Vegas. The sun was just beginning to rise. Bennett, still too wired from the night's merriment to sleep, was painting on his hotel terrace. He watched the solitary man walk up and down. The next morning, he was there again just walking all alone. Intrigued, Bennett left his easel to follow him and discovered it was Benny. Jack's wife later told Bennett that the comedian regularly used that quiet time to collect his thoughts, and to get in touch with who he was.
"It was like a light bulb went off in my head," Bennett says. "Very quickly I came to realize all I needed to make me happy was a drumroll, a band, and some people who want me to sing. Looking back, I now know I grew up only when I was already in my forties."
His divorces were "very treacherous," he says. "Divorce smashes something. And it affects everyone--kids as well as grown-ups. One of my few regrets is that I wasn't with my children as much as I would have liked. But I did stay involved with them. I truly tried to be a good father and some of my most wonderful moments were with them. My children are my true joy and blessing. And they understand my need to work."
Danny Bennett, at 41 Tony's eldest child, was 17 when his parents divorced. "Prior to my folks' split, I remember a wonderful childhood," he says, "waking up to hear Count Basie and Duke Ellington jamming in our basement. Even after the divorce, I remember my father as always being around. I was proud of him. Not many know that, before it became fashionable among celebrities, my dad marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, and refused to play South Africa because of apartheid. He is a good man and a good father."
In the late sixties, Columbia, Bennett's record company, pushed him to be more "commercial," to change with the changing styles in music. They wanted him to go rock, go country, go disco, and finally, just go.
"It was a tough time then for singers of standards," recalls Rosemary Clooney. "Many succumbed to the pressure from their record labels. Not Tony. He refused to make concessions."
He paid the price. For more than a decade, he sang solely in concert and in the few remaining nightclubs around the country. Then, in 1979, Danny Bennett took over his father's management and began a carefully orchestrated campaign to put Tony's talent before young audiences through youth-oriented TV shows.
Danny's reasoning: If they can hear Tony, they will buy his music. And they did. Impressed by new sales of Tony's old albums, Columbia, at Danny's urging, resigned its once premier artist. Since his return, Tony has won back-to-back Grammys for his CDs, Perfectly Frank and Steppin' Out, his tributes to Sinatra and Fred Astaire, ironically winning out each time over Rosemary Clooney, also experiencing a renaissance of her own. This year, he was again nominated for a Grammy for Unplugged.
Today, Bennett lives in a sparsely furnished apartment in a pleasant, but hardly fashionable, area of Manhattan. Past mistakes, he says, have taught him to "travel light--just me, my band, my paints, and Boo." Susan Crow, the manager of several name jazz artists, joins him when her schedule permits. Bennett no longer needs "things" to make him happy. "Things knock off your concentration. I have found the simpler you get, the more complicated and rich your thoughts can be."
Retirement is not among those thoughts. "I love what I'm doing," he explains. "My life is really quite wonderful today. Sometimes the two hundred concerts a year do feel like a few too many, as I would like more time to paint. [An Anthony Dominick Benedetto painting sells for as much as forty thousand dollars.] But I'm addicted to performing. It's a healthy addiction, however, maybe even a noble one, as it can make people feel good."
And for Bennett to feel good? "All it takes is a standard song to sing, and an easel on which to paint," he says. "Through song and art, I can communicate what I believe is the essence of life--truth and beauty. In my time, I've seen both go out of style, but," and he grins the famous lopsided grin, "they always come back in vogue again."
Just like the man himself.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Hearst Corporation