Tony Bennett: Still wowing the fans at 88

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
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Tony Bennett, one of the world’s greatest singers, is playing in York next week. Chris Bond spoke to him about his life and career.

THERE can’t be many people who’ve had a trumpet serenade on their 88th birthday organised by Lady Gaga.

There won’t be many people, either, who’ve performed for 10 American presidents, picked up 17 Grammy awards and walked alongside Martin Luther King on a civil rights march.

It’s very rare that I find myself in awe of somebody I’m interviewing but Tony Bennett isn’t just anyone – this is the man Frank Sinatra once said was “the best singer in the business”.

In a career spanning 64 years the legendary singer has produced more than a hundred albums and collaborated with the likes of Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Barbra Streisand.

At 88, most people have long since retired but Bennett is still going strong. Next month he releases his latest album, a record of duets with Lady Gaga, and begins a short UK tour that includes a show at the Barbican Centre, in York, the first time he’s ever played in the city. Speaking from New York ahead of his visit, Bennett said he was looking forward to performing here.

“I’ve travelled all over the world and one of the truths I’ve learned is once you’ve made it in Britain, they don’t forget you. I’ve played there since the 50s and the audience keeps coming back, they stay loyal to you.”

When you have a voice like his you could argue they simply have good taste. But if Bennett has enjoyed a glittering career he certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Born in Queens, in New York, in 1926, his early years weren’t easy. “My father died when I was young and my mother had to raise three children during the Depression, which was tough.” But his talent as a singer was obvious to his family from an early age.

“I had a lot of aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces and they would come by of a Sunday to try and cheer my mum up. Me and my brother and sister would be the entertainment for the family,” he says. “I was about nine or 10 and just at that age where I was wondering who I was and what I might become, and they told me they liked the way I sang and this created a passion in me. That’s what started me on the road to where I am today.”

His early musical heroes were people like Enrico Caruso and then Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, both of whom would later become friends. However, his late teens were interrupted by the Second World War and after enlisting in the US Army he saw action in Europe in 1945. His experiences had a profound effect on him. “I became anti-war and anti- violence after that and I still am to this day,” he says. The war, though, did at least have one positive effect for him. “The GI Bill of Rights meant I could go to any school and I was very fortunate to study at the American Theatre Wing School. They had some great teachers like Art Tatum who taught me how to phrase a song from musicians and not singers. I was criticised by some other musicians who said I was out of tempo, but I told them that was how I liked to do it.”

Bennett’s big break came in 1949 when he was spotted by Bob Hope in a club in New York’s Greenwich Village. “He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘come on kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’ But first he told me he didn’t care for my stage name (Joe Bari) and asked me what my real name was. I told him, ‘my name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto’ and he said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.’ And that’s how it happened.”

He enjoyed early success in the 50s with a string of hit singles including chart-toppers like Because of You, Rags to Riches and The Good Life. Over the past 60 years he has introduced successive generations of music fans to the joys of the Great American Songbook, featuring work by icons such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. “Some people say it’s old fashioned but it isn’t and in years to come it won’t be seen as light entertainment, it will become American Classic Music.”

He likens it to great art. “People like Picasso and Monet never go out of fashion and it’s the same with American music from the 20s and 30s that came out of Broadway, people never get tired of hearing those songs. I’ve played in China before and the audience has been singing along with me.”

Over the decades Bennett has become friends with cultural icons like Cary Grant, Judy Garland and Nat King Cole. So is there anyone he’s ever been in awe of? “Fred Astaire,” he says, without missing a beat. “I met him and told him I’d done a version of a song called I Used To Be Color Blind that he had sung. He asked me if I had the record and I told him I had it right there. He listened to it and pointed his finger at my heart and said ‘you’re it.’

“The American Songbook should really be called the Fred Astaire Songbook because all the composers wanted him to introduce their songs.”

Although Bennett’s career took a dive in the 70s when rock music held sway, he soon bounced back and has sold 10 million records in the last decade alone.

He’s also worked with a new generation of stars including Michael Buble, Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga, who he’s sung with on his new record. “She’s got a young audience and she sounds wonderful with a big band, she’s quite the jazz singer.”

As for himself, he’s happy to keep performing. “I paint every day and I’ve still got my voice. I’m in good health and I’m still learning. I heard somebody being asked once if they were going to retire and they said ‘retire to what?’ That’s how I feel.”