Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Good Life: An Interview with Tony Bennett

"I could have retired fifteen years ago but here I am still going at it," says Tony Bennett.  At 87, the legendary vocalist has certainly earned the right to stay home and spend time with his seventeen Grammy Awards and a roomful of hit records that come in shades of triple platinum and certified gold.  Nevertheless Bennett prefers to keep looking forward.  "I'm 87 and believe me, I feel like I'm just starting out and learning so many new things," says Bennett, who has now been performing for seven decades.  He's worked with all of the greats - from Sinatra to Streisand, Garland to Gaga.  He's hit the top of the charts dozens of times and did so while fully clothed and without ever once using a wrecking ball as a means of transportation.

After racking up honors from the Kennedy Center, the United Nations and Billboard, most performers would be content to spend their days hitting the links at Pebble Beach but not Bennett, who is currently in rehearsals for his Waterfront Concerts appearance at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on April 19th.  Bennett says that the program will include many of his favorite standards.  And is it any wonder that one of our country's most gifted singers would find inspiration in the Great American Songbook?

"In America, we're very privileged to have produced this extraordinary group of composers - George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and of course, Cole Porter, who was better than all of them," Bennett says.  "All of these artists were part of a great renaissance period in music...You just swoon when you hear songs like "Embraceable You" or "Night and Day."  These songs don't sound old to me in any way.  In fact, after years of performing these songs, I'm completely convinced that in about fifty years, they'll be called 'America's Classical Music' and not just referred to as 'light entertainment.'"

Several of the songs Bennett performs in concert are featured on his new Sony Legacy compilation, "The Classics."  This career-spanning anthology allows the listener to hear Bennett transition from a youthful, full-bodied belter to a more mature and nuanced interpreter.  The collection kicks off with his 1951 breakout hit, "Because of You," and concludes with "Steppin' Out With My Baby," his 2012 duet with Christina Aguilera.  Listening to the various tracks, its easy to see why record executives determined early on that Bennett had "undeniable crossover appeal."  After all, it's a rare performer who can claim both AARP members and Phi Kappa Sigma members as part of their fan base.

Bennett believes that his widespread and enduring popularity is at least partially attributable to some advice he received at the beginning of his career.  "When I was at the American Theatre Wing, I had this wonderful vocal coach, Mimi Speer, and she gave me some terrific advice," recalls Bennett.  She said, 'Don't imitate other singers because you'll just end up in the chorus if you do that...You always have to remember to be yourself.'"

After signing with Columbia Records in 1950, Bennett says that he never picked songs based on their Top 40 prospects.  "I never tried to get a hit song.  I just tried to find intelligent songs that were built right musically and that have beautiful lyrics," says Bennett.  "I was taught at the American Theatre Wing to never compromise and to sing quality all of the time.  If you find a song that's well written, then you try to record the definitive version of that song.  You know, it's a lot like fishing.  Some days you can catch a whole barrel of good fish and other days, you can't get any of them.  But you go for it anyway and you give it your best shot."

When it was released as a single in 1962, "Once Upon a Time" was expected to be Bennett's next chart topper but disc jockeys preferred the song that had been relegated to the "B' side.  Bennett's wistful longing "to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars" turned "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" into a career milestone.  "I had a musical director, Ralph Sharon and he found that song for me," Bennett remembers.  "He had some friends that wrote that song and one day when we were trying different tunes out, he just said to me, 'How about this one?'  We had no idea that it was going to go through the roof...I can't think of a better signature song to be associated with because the city is a very romantic city and it's really beautiful.  It's not that Maine isn't beautiful because that's an incredible place also but there is a spirit about San Francisco that is very unique."

The 60's proved to be a particularly fertile decade for Bennett.  "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life" and "This Is All I Ask" all soared to the top of the charts and several of the albums he recorded during this period (When Lights Are LowAlone Together) are considered among his finest.  As Bennett recalls, "I had a wonderful arranger, Marty Manning, who never blew horns about his career and never wanted his name mentioned or anything like that but I remember when I was a young singer he said to me, 'Just know that whenever I do an arrangement for you, it's going to be just right for you...'  Lo and behold, every time we had a hit record and I had quite a few of them, it was Marty Manning who had done the orchestrations.  He'd never take the credit but Marty Manning was the one who wrote the music so that it would be an absolute perfect fit to whatever I was singing."      

As for today's music, Bennett believes that art has taken a backseat to the bottom line and that the tide began to turn with the man behind the candelabra. "Liberace was the first one.  He was playing the Waldorf but at the same time he was saying,'I'd like to play Madison Square Garden,'" Bennett recalls.  "He was the first one to fill 35,000 seats.  Every producer in town said, 'This kind of thing can make us a ton of money...' and suddenly you had performers doing their acts in these enormous stadiums.  I resented it because I sing intimately and acoustically.  I'm not in any race to try and be bigger than another act or something like that...It means more to me to have a composer come up and say, 'Nobody performed my song better than that.'  That's the game I play, you know?"

Bennett's eldest son, Danny, has been responsible for many of his father's most successful recording ventures including Tony Bennett Duets: An American Classic. "He was the one who came up with that idea of having all of the young artists record an album with me," Bennett says.  In terms of future projects, there's a highly anticipated collaboration with Lady Gaga being released later this year.  "I think people are going to be shocked because we did all of these great American standards and Gaga has a wonderful Ella Fitzgerald quality on this album," says Bennett.  "I think people are going to be surprised and very impressed."

After his appearance in Portland, Bennett is back on the road with performances scheduled everywhere from Pittsburgh to Kansas.  Between engagements, he keeps up with his other passion - painting.  "It's not that I want to do it," Bennett says.  "I have to sing.  I have to paint.  I never want to stop learning until the day I die, you know?  I just want to keep trying to explore and improve.  I'm just going to keep going for it, you know?"




[Mark Griffin is a writer for the Boston-based organization Laughter With a Lesson]

Go and Do:

What:  Tony Bennett in Concert (One Night Only)
Where:  Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle Street, Portland
When:  Saturday, April 19.  7:30pm
Tickets: $140.75, $110.75, $80.75 at tickets.porttix.com or 207-842-0800.

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