Tony Bennett: Training pays off for husky baritone from Queens
Ah, yes, that husky baritonal purr is familiar indeed: Tony Bennett is on the phone, calling from his home in New York.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to name another singer whose career has spanned nearly seven decades, while continuing to maintain the high quality of vocal production managed by Bennett, who is returning to Tanglewood Sunday afternoon at 2:30 in the Koussevitzky Music Shed.
Setting aside the incipient recitals for family and friends from age 10 in his native Astoria, where Bennett, who recently celebrated his 88th birthday, grew up; his teenage stint as a singing waiter, and performing with military bands while on active service in Europe, Bennett first mounted a nightclub stage in 1946, 67 years ago -- amazing -- considering his vocal longevity.
"I had very good training," said Bennett. "After coming back, out of the service in the Second World War under the G.I. Bill of Rights, the U.S gave us the opportunity to choose any school."
Bennett elected to join the American Theater Wing, and there studied the bel canto technique under a gentleman named Pietro D'Andrea, and vocal under a well-known voice teacher and coach, Mimi Speer.
"Mimi Speer said ‘phrase like musicians phrase -- phrase a song the way musicians would.' "
Bennett selected as his models, Art Tatum, the great jazz pianist, and Stan Getz, the virtuoso saxophonist.
Another useful admonition from Speer: "She told me: ‘Be yourself. Don't imitate another singer. If you sing like another singer, you're just going to be a member of the chorus.' "
Following his nightclub debut in Astoria, Pearl Bailey asked Bennett to join her revue at New York's Village Inn, where he was soon discovered by Bob Hope who offered the singer a spot on his show at the famed Paramount Theatre on Broadway. And there, backstage, is where Anthony Dominick Benedetto, then known as "Joe Bari," was rechristened "Tony Bennett"
Success followed, as Bennett signed a contract with Columbia Records, his initial release, "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams." His first big hit, "Because of You," arrived in 1951. Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" followed later that year with the Percy Faith Orchestra. "Blue Velvet" emerged the same day in 1951 as he became a Paramount headliner, and "Rags to Riches" and "Stranger in Paradise," in 1953, were among his 24 tunes to reach the Top 40 charts prior to 1964.
Throughout Bennett's career he has demonstrated a social conscience, a concern for the world around him. He joined his friend, Harry Belafonte, in 1965, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala. He has raised millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. And in 1999, Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, a former school teacher, founded Exploring the Arts (ETA), an organization that connects givers of private funds to individual artists and cultural institutions, its major purpose to improve arts instruction in the nation's high schools.
ETA's initial endeavor was establishment of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, where students major in dance, theater, film, art or vocal or instrumental music in a splendid state-of-the art facility.
"There are now 17 schools where we sponsor programs, including three in East L.A." said Bennett. Our ambition is to get every school in America to have arts programs. An artist has truth in beauty to give to the rest of the world."
"Old Blue Eyes" was a major figure in Bennett's life and career. "Sinatra was good to me my whole life," he said. "We never hung out together that much, but he was close to me, and I was close to him -- he was 10 years older and taught me so much. Frank, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat "King" Cole were my three great masters."
Bennett said he vocalizes only on the days he is performing, "but I study music every day. I have great jazz musicians with me, a quartet that is excellent -- Michael Renzi [keyboards], Gray Sargent, guitar; Marshall Wood, that great bass player, and Howard Jones, Count Basie's favorite drummer. I improvise with them because of the acoustics of different venues -- we try to figure out the best way to perform."
Bennett said he always adds two or three new songs to his act every six months: "Doing that, it becomes a different performance all the time for the musicians."
And will he do that song this weekend at Tanglewood? "I better, he laughed. "I tell you, to this day, it's still my favorite song. Some singers, when associated with a song, get tired of singing it. But when I sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,' each time I sing my heart out.
"I adore that city, because of the homes and the atmosphere, the public -- all quality -- the rolling hills. It's just a beautiful city in the United States, and people come from all over the world to visit that city -- it's sort of the way we feel in going to Paris."
Bennett is a family man -- his son, Danny, has been his manager since 1979, and his daughter, Antonia Bennett, a singer, will be joining his show here.
"We do a Stephen Sondheim song together, and she opens the show, for about 20 minutes. She's very original," said Bennett. "I never give her any ideas; she's one of a kind, very creative; she sings very well, there's a wonderful spirit about her. I've never met anyone who makes friends so easily."
On Sunday's program, Bennett will dedicate one tune, "The Good Life," to Lady Gaga, with whom he has just cut a new recording of classic standards and solos. "Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek LIVE" will be released by Streamline/Columbia/Interscope in September and shown on Public Television's "Great Performances" in October.
"Away from the big stadiums, Lady Gaga is a wonderful interpretive jazz singer," Bennett said. "There is not one disappointing moment in the whole album. And after we recorded ‘The Lady Is a Tramp,' she went around to everybody in the studio and thanked them for being there. When I first met her I knew this artist is going to be around for a long time."
Aside from music, most are aware of Bennett's passion for art -- he says he always travels with watercolors, a sketch book and a pencil.
"I've been painting all my life, and it's something I feel I have to do, not that I want to do -- just the same way I feel about singing."
His inspirations: "I'm always interested in communicating truth and beauty, whether in a song or on canvas -- that's my overall inspiration" he responded. "When it comes to painting, nature never disappoints, so I usually gravitate to landscapes."