I recently had the good fortune of making one of my writing dreams come true. My post retirement job is being the Managing Editor of the Dayton City Paper. We are a weekly tabloid publication focusing on arts and entertainment in and around Dayton, Ohio. I had been freelancing for them for a few years until the publisher coaxed me out of retirement. I still write the occasional feature and last month, I had the opportunity to interview and profile one of my all-time favorite entertainers, Tony Bennett. He was appearing at a local venue and when the assignment came along, I didn’t even offer it to one of the other writers. I decided to reprint it here for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Still living the good life
Tony Bennett brings his heart to the Fraze
The words living legend are often misapplied, usually to sports figures who haven’t really experienced enough of life to earn the title. No such problem exists for Tony Bennett. The ace crooner has been entertaining audiences since the late 1940’s and in his 91st year, he shows no signs of stopping. He’ll appear at The Fraze on June 21.
Anthony Benedetto embarked on his professional singing career after World War II. He was asked by songstress Pearl Bailey to open for her at a Greenwich Village nightclub, to which comedian Bob Hope was invited. After hearing the young man sing, Hope took him on tour, but shortened his name to Tony Bennett. Bennett cites some unlikely sources of inspiration for his unique style, which he shared with the Dayton City Paper during a recent chat.
“After serving in WWII, I was able to study at the American Theatre Wing, which was a wonderful opportunity for me,” he says. “I had a vocal teacher named Mimi Speers and she knew how much I loved jazz music so she told me if you imitate another singer, then you will just be one of the chorus. Instead, she told me to listen to the jazz instrumentalists that I liked the most and study their approach and let it influence my vocal style. I loved the piano player Art Tatum, as he would make each song its own unique rendering. He would build up each song slowly and then bring it to a big finish at the end so it was very dramatic and really communicated, so that was really my first influence as a singer starting out. Of course, Louis Armstrong is one of my all-time favorite singers and performers -- he really taught us all how to sing.”
A recording career with Columbia Records soon followed, resulting in such timeless pieces of Americana as “Rags to Riches,” “The Good Life,” “I Wanna be Around,” and “I Left my Heart in San Francisco,” among many others. To date, Bennett has won 20 Grammy Awards. His 2007 album “Duets: An American Classic” paired him with current popular musicians, many of whom were unaccustomed to recording in the same studio as the orchestra.
“I love singing in front of a live audience and when I record, my goal is always to achieve that sense of live performance and spontaneity,” he says. “So we always have the band in the same room -- no one is behind a glass wall and that is how I have been making records since I first started out with Columbia. In the studio, you want to communicate with the musicians and have that connection so that you stay in the moment and create a very authentic approach to recording. After the Duets recordings, many of the artists told me that they wanted to make their next album that very same way.”
In addition to his musical accomplishments, Bennett has received acclaim for his talents as a painter.
“I have been sketching and painting all my life and I studied both art and music growing up,” he says. “In fact, there was a time that I had thought I would give up music and just pursue art, but my music teacher at the time told me that he thought I had promise as a singer and encouraged me to keep going with music, too. In fact, it has become a wonderful yin yang relationship, as when I perform it’s very gregarious -- in front of thousands of people and you have to rely on the musicians and the production crew to keep the show going. And when I paint, it is just me and a blank canvas. The two art forms are very different but it enables me to stay in a creative zone all the time and never feel burnt out. I always carry a small sketch pad and a pencil in my jacket pocket and I take watercolors on the road with me since they are easy to transport.”
Much of Bennett’s recorded output for the past thirty years has paid homage to other great song interpreters, such as Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and Billie Holliday.
“Even with my earlier albums, I always liked to develop a theme,” he says. “With my son, Danny, we came up with the plan in the late 80’s to keep it going and honor singers and composers for many of my projects in the last few decades. And my goal is always to keep the legacy of the songs and singers of the Great American Songbook alive and create new interest with upcoming generations of listeners. So it worked out pretty well!”
Clearly a man who is still happy in his work, Bennett performs with one goal for his audiences.
“I hope that as they leave the theatre after one of my shows that they feel like they enjoyed themselves and for the evening they were able to put aside their own daily problems and concerns and have a good time. That is what I do -- I love to entertain people and make them feel good.”
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Tim Smith is an award-winning bestselling author of romantic mystery/thrillers and contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.