When you talk about the greatest performers of all time, the name Tony Bennett has to be in the conversation. The 17-time Grammy-winner – and WWII Army vet – has done it all, from topping the charts in the ‘50s, to palling around with Frank Sinatra, to singing with the Count Basie Orchestra, to making his name (as Anthony Benedetto) as a painter, and then reaching a whole new hipster audience in the ‘90s.
The 86-year-old Bennett – who’s been called the world’s most boyish octogenarian – takes the stage at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday night. He talked to The Miami Herald about the concerts, how he keeps his voice in shape, and just how long he plans to continue crooning favorites from the Great American Songbook, including his signature hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
You’ve been performing and recording for more than 60 years – do you still get the same thrill from it all?
I do, and I still get butterflies every time before I go out onstage. In fact, Frank Sinatra told me when I was just starting out that being nervous about performing was a good thing, and it showed that you cared about the audience and that they in turn would care about you. It was great advice that I have never forgotten.
At age 86, you’re still at the top of your game, which very few people can say. What’s your secret?
Well, thank you. I have to say that I still love what I do, and I think that the secret of doing anything well in life is having a love for it.
Do you have any routines or regimens that keep your voice fresh and strong?
After I came home from WWII, under the GI Bill of Rights I was able to study at the American Theatre Wing, and I took lessons in bel canto from a master teacher, Pietro D’Andrea, who taught me exercises and techniques that are used by opera singers. They have been invaluable in keeping my voice in shape. As they say, the first day you don’t do your vocal exercises, you know it; the second day, the band knows it; and by the third day, the audience knows it.
How long would you like to keep singing and performing?
I have a goal that, if possible, I would like to keep singing until 100.
What kind of effect did World War II have on you as an artistic, creative person, and did you always plan to go into show business after the Army?
During the Army, I was able to perform with several Army bands and on the Armed Forces Radio, and worked with some very talented musicians. So as much as I abhor violence – being in the war made me a pacifist –artistically, I had the opportunity to sing. And once I got out it was the beginning of my “scuffling years” before I got my big break in 1949, when I met Pearl Bailey and she asked me to join her show at the Village Inn.
The advent of rock in the ’60s and ’70s derailed your success a bit – how did you surge back into popularity beginning in the ’90s, and did that newfound success surprise you?
When I decided to leave Columbia Records in the 1970s it turned out to artistically be one of the best things for me, because it was during those years that I was able to record two jazz albums with the genius pianist Bill Evans, which ultimately are considered two of my best recordings. When my son Danny started to manage me, he saw the opportunity to sign back with Columbia, but this time I was able to have creative control, and it was surprising to me to have young people come up to me and say they saw me on MTV, but it didn’t surprise me that the music of the Great American Songbook continues to have appeal. It’s a legacy of songwriting that will last forever.
What inspired you to do your “Duets” series?
I have to credit my son Danny for coming up with the concept and getting all the artists to perform with me, but it has been an absolute thrill to make those records and work with such talented performers.
Was painting your first love, artistically?
From early on, I can remember singing and painting and I recall my family giving me encouragement with both, so that I felt from a very young age that this is what I should do – this is who I am.
How many works have you created?
I paint or sketch every day, so there is a lot – over a thousand for sure. Currently I am working on a sculpture, which is very new to me but I am enjoying the process.
What artists inspired you to pick up a brush?
I love the masters, such as Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent, Sorolla.
What do you think of Alec Baldwin’s impression of you on “Saturday Night Live”?
Alec and I are good friends, and he does a good one. He is a generous person and has been supportive of my charity Exploring the Arts, which supports arts in public schools and was kind enough to come to the school I founded in Astoria, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, and speak to the students in the drama program.