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Tony Bennett marks 80th birthday with duets

Legend recalls his days with Bob Hope and seeing John Coltrane perform
/ Source: Billboard

Tony Bennett is a rebel. He has walked away from recording contracts to keep his integrity and won’t sing a song he does not believe in. He adheres to the philosophy of art for art’s sake — whether he’s recording an album or painting a portrait.

“You have to be different,” Bennett says. “If you do what everyone else is doing, you’re just one of the crowd.”

This year, Bennett marks several milestones. On Aug. 3, he turned 80. On Sept. 26, his own RPM Records and Columbia Records will release “Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic,” which pairs the singer with an all-star artist roster for live duets of his best-loved songs. And on Dec. 4, Bennett will receive the Century Award, Billboard’s highest honor for creative achievement, during the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas.

Q: What did it mean to you to record with these younger artists [on the new album]?

A: Years ago, the artists that were 10 years my elder were masters like [Frank] Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. That’s what I grew up on. So these artists for the duets album were all new to me.

Now all of a sudden, they are telling me I’m the master. I couldn’t believe it.

Q: How did Bob Hope give you your stage name?

A: I was working at the Greenwich Village Inn. Pearl [Bailey] heard me rehearsing. She went to the boss and said, “If this boy isn’t in my show, I’m not singing here next week.” She put me on the show.

Bob Hope was at the Paramount Theater with Jane Russell and Les Brown’s band. He came down to see Pearly May, and he got a big kick out of me because I was the only white kid in the show. He said, “Come over here, son. What’s your name?” I had a name that I thought would be catchy, and I said, “Joe Bari.”

Bob said, “That’s a city in Italy! What’s your real name?” I told him Anthony Dominick Benedetto. He said, “That’s going to be too long for the marquee. We’ll call you Tony Bennett.” He gave me my name. I was about 26 years old. He had no idea there’d be a singer one day called Engelbert Humperdinck.

Bob took me on the road and was wonderful to me. I went all over the country. He taught me how to perform for an audience. When I got back, Mitch Miller heard that Bob Hope had taken me on the road, and he signed me and Rosey Clooney to Columbia.

Q: What was it like to be in New York at the birth of bebop?

A: That was the greatest. I didn’t know who Charlie Parker was, and I went into Birdland with a friend of mine and we had front-row seats. Charlie Parker performed, and it was so percussive and something so different from anything I’d ever heard that I actually got up and ran out of the club and regurgitated in the street, I was so moved. I didn’t know who he was. I’d never heard anything like it.

Q: How did you find your vocal sound?

A: My vocal teacher Mimi Spear was on 52nd Street in New York City. Across the street from her brownstone, we could see marquee signs that read “Count Basie,” “Art Tatum,” “George Shearing” and “Stan Getz.” They were all on that street.

She said, “Tony, go down there and listen to all the musicians and find out who you like and imitate them. Don’t imitate singers, because if you do, you’ll just be one of the chorus.” That’s how I got my own style. Fifty-second Street was the best. At 3 a.m., the clubs would close, and it would be Billy Jo Jones, Miles Davis, [John] Coltrane, and I would sit there and listen to them until 12 in the afternoon. The clubs were dark, no lights. I’d walk out and be blinded by the sun and sleep in the afternoon. That happened day after day after day. It was the greatest. They don’t do that now.

Q: You were the first white singer to perform with Count Basie. What was that like?

A: It changed my career even though people didn’t like it. He always had the right tempo.

Q: Did you encounter a lot of racism?

A: There was a lot of it. It’s still not right, even now. Look at [Hurricane] Katrina and the United States, with the money and power that we have in our great country. I have traveled around the world to Asia and Europe. They show you what they have contributed to the world. The British show you theater, the Italians show you music and art, the French show you cooking and painting, and the Germans show you science. The only thing that the United States, which is still a young country, has contributed culturally to the world is jazz —elongated improvisation.

Fifty years from now people will be bowing to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, just like the impressionist painters like Monet, who were starving in their day. The Americans don’t even know what they have come up with.

Q: How did the advent of rock ’n’ roll affect your career?

A: I learned a lot, and it’s different than what anybody is doing today, even now. I went to the Paramount Theater with Louis Prima. We had to do seven shows a day — start at 10 a.m. and go until 10 p.m. Sinatra did the same. It was tough. Bob Whitman and Nat Shapiro, who were the managers of the Paramount in those days, gave us advice and said, “Never do anything but good songs. Don’t ever sing a bad song, ever.”

Plus, my mother used to be a seamstress and raised three children by herself when my father died. She used to get a penny a dress, this was during the Depression. Every once in a while, she’d take a dress and throw it over her shoulder and say, “Don’t have me work on a bad dress. I’ll work on a good dress. I won’t work on a bad dress.”

There are small stories, but looking back they really molded how I think. If you do good songs, the young people will like it, and their parents will like it. I always tried to do good songs. So when the whole rock ’n’ roll change came in with the marketing of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I kept doing good songs. So I went right through.

I just kept working. I wasn’t playing stadiums, but I’m not interested in that. I like a nice acoustical [setting] where the whole family can come and hear me. My ambition was never to go to No. 1, over the top, bigger than anybody. To me there’s God, and then there’s the rest of us.

If I’m sold out, and people want to come back 11 months later and see me again, I’m successful. I like show business. I don’t even question it. My hero is Louis Armstrong, because the audience was it for him. He knocked them right out. He went for the jugular vein when it came to the audience.

Q: Why didn’t you choose between painting and music?

A: I’ve always had to do both. The late Joe Williams, the famous jazz singer, met me on a plane once, and he said, “The thing about you, Tony, is not that you want to sing — you have to sing.” It was very accurate. It saved me a lot of money. I didn’t have to go to a psychiatrist and try to figure it out. I still have the commitment and craving to sing and paint every day and stay in shape. I’m always learning. You never stop learning. I really enjoy my life, because I’m doing the two things I love to do. I don’t feel like I worked a day in my life. I can’t wait to get to the stage and hit the painting.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: My greatest teachers are the mistakes I made. I made many, many mistakes.