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Q&A with Tony Bennett
The ultimate showman
To mark his eighty-fifth birthday, veteran crooner Tony Bennett has released a new album, Duets II, featuring famous friends, including former Atlantan John Mayer and the late Amy Winehouse. Before Bennett once again hits the Fox Theatre stage on November 25, we posed a few questions about his remarkable sixty years in show business.
I’m pleased to report that your name is already up on the Fox Theatre marquee for your November 25 concert here. Do you remember the first time you played the Fox? I do. It was years and years ago. Back then, there was a chain of Fox Theatres. I played the one in Atlanta, there was one in the Midwest, there’s one in San Francisco. They’re beautiful. They’re like the Radio City Music Hall. They’re a lot larger than a lot of the other theaters and acoustically they’re perfect. That’s where I like to work. I don’t like the big stadiums.
Photograph by Kelsey Bennett
For years, at a point in each show at the Fox here in Atlanta, you’ve paid tribute to the venue’s acoustics by turning off all the amplification in the theater and bouncing your voice off the back wall. Are you still doing that? Oh, sure. I always look forward to that. Anytime I can do that, I love to do it. There aren’t a lot of those places left. You’ve got to take advantage of those perfect acoustics whenever you have the chance.
One of your biggest hits, “I Wanna Be Around,” cowritten by Georgia’s own Johnny Mercer, is still in your act. It’s probably the meanest song in your catalog. Is it fun to perform a song that flies in the face of your nice guy image? It’s funny, I’ve never looked at it as a mean song. I think it’s something that happens to everybody on the planet. At one point or another, we’ve all been in that guy’s shoes [laughs]. Somebody’s going to break your heart. I look as it as a lesson in how to forgive when you’re tempted to be that mean.
In 1993, you were asked to perform “Theme From New York, New York” on Frank Sinatra’s Duets album. But Mr. Sinatra chose to prerecord his tracks, and you sang along alone to his track in the studio. On your new Duets II album, you performed in the studio with each of your guest artists. Was it important for you to be together in the same room? It was very important. Instead of having each artist fly in and come to us, we did the opposite. We went to them. I flew to Pisa, Italy, to record “Stranger in Paradise” with Andrea Bocelli in his home studio. We went to Los Angeles to do “When Do the Bells Ring For Me?” with Mariah Carey at her home studio. We recorded with Amy Winehouse at Abbey Road Studios in London. We flew all over the world. It was important to me for each artist to be comfortable in their home environment.
One of your last sessions for Duets II was recording “The Lady Is a Tramp” in New York City this summer with Lady Gaga. Did it surprise you to learn she’s a Tony Bennett fan? She’s a New Yorker, after all. I just love her completely. We hit it off instantly. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m eighty-five, and I first became well known in 1950. I was the Justin Bieber of my time. But I’ve never met anyone who performs better than Lady Gaga. She sings beautifully. She plays terrific piano. She knows how to dance. She reinvents herself day to day. When we recorded together, she showed up in this amazingly beautiful dress. The next day, I saw her on The View, and she had on these checkered glasses and checkered piano and a checkered dress! It was completely different. She looked like another act entirely. She works that quick. I’ve never seen anyone as intuitive and as creative as Lady Gaga. I think, and this is personal now, but I think as time goes on, she’ll be bigger than Elvis Presley in terms of popularity.
For Duets II, you recorded “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse, a song very closely identified with your friend Billie Holiday. It turned out to be the last thing Amy Winehouse recorded prior to her death. When you listen to your track together now, is it a reminder that because of their demons, two talented ladies were taken from the world too soon? It was wonderful to work with Amy but tragic at the same time. I wanted to get a hold of her and her father and sit them down together. I wanted to tell her, “You’ve got to stop or you’re going to die.” I wanted to put her in the BBC show honoring me on my eighty-fifth birthday. I wanted Amy Winehouse to be on that show with me. It’s absolutely tragic. This young angel of a great singer who sang better than any of the young singers out there is gone. I wish you could have heard Billie Holiday when she wasn’t on drugs. You would have been amazed at how good she was. She was so much better when she wasn’t high. It’s the same thing with Amy Winehouse. If only she had stopped. Everybody loved her. Everybody cared for her. It’s a tragedy. Her father is starting [the Amy Winehouse Foundation] in her honor. It’s a charity to teach young people not to take drugs. All my royalties from our duet will go to that.”
You perform a very fun, up-tempo rendition of the saloon song “One For My Baby” on this album with our former Buckhead boy John Mayer. Did it surprise you to learn that John has some real chops as a crooner? I had a lot of faith in him. He’s a hell of an improviser. He knows how to syncopate. He’s a great blues singer. That record was completely spontaneous. All that interplay you hear was off the cuff. There was no preplanning any of that. We just acted inebriated, talking to the bartender. I love the way it came out. It was just a completely spontaneous jazz record.
I have a confession, Mr. Bennett. A few weeks ago at Criminal Records, a shop here in Atlanta, I unearthed a used vinyl copy of your infamous 1970 album, Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, for a dollar. In your autobiography, you cite it as your least favorite album. You’ve mentioned that it literally made you sick to your stomach to record. When I got it home, I discovered that, forty-one years later, the album has aged really well. The songs on it, written by Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the Beatles, and Stevie Wonder, have now all become modern standards. The arrangements written for the album are all top notch. I wondered if you’ve ever considered reevaluating the album’s place in your catalog? I have. It’s funny you mention that. It’s going to be included in a big boxed set [Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection, out November 8 via Barnes & Noble and tonybennett.com] that Sony is putting out of seventy-five of my albums from 1950 to now. I’ve been listening to the digital versions of them. I’m thrilled that good teachers along the way taught me in my life. After the Second World War, I came out of the army and joined the American Theatre Wing under the G.I. Bill. Those teachers taught me never to sing a bad song. Never compromise. My catalog is still enjoyable for me to listen to because we used the best orchestras, the best musicians, and the best creative artists like Stan Getz, Bill Evans, and Ralph Sharon. The albums still hold up.
On the occasion of your eighty-fifth birthday, have you taken any time to consider your legacy? There are music critics who would rank your contributions to music right up there alongside your heroes Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Thank you. That’s very kind. Just remember, they were all older than I was! They were all my masters too. Nat King Cole, Jo Stafford, Dick Haymes, they were all my teachers. But Sinatra? Sinatra was my hero, you know. He’s the one who changed my whole career when he told Life magazine in 1965 that I was the best singer he had ever heard. It changed my whole career because all of his fans started coming to listen to me. I’ve been sold out ever since throughout the world. He ended up being a great, great friend. A distant friend—I was never a part of the Rat Pack—but we were friends until the day he died.
And he famously played your albums whenever he had a party at his house. I’m thinking that’s not too shabby either, huh? [Laughing] You bet. What a compliment that was. Believe me, I feel great about that!
Can you tell our readers the best thing about turning eighty-five? I’ll give you three words: Count your blessings. I count my blessings because I have my health, I had good training so I’ve kept my voice in top shape and I still love to perform. I’m not going to retire either. I’m going to keep going. I sing and I paint everyday. You can’t ask for more out of life than that.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR NOVEMBER 2011 ISSUE