Being called a living legend pretty much cements your place in history. But even the icons don’t mind being given a reminder now and then.
Tony Bennett’s big night at the Emmy Awards last month was capped with a big haul—his special “Tony Bennett: An American Classic” earned seven awards, making it the year’s most honored program. He also performed on the telecast with pop superstar Christina Aguilera. The night made the 81-year-old performer feel on top of the world again.
“When I turned 80 last year, I felt that it was the best time in my life, but it just keeps getting better and these Emmy wins were a great thrill,” Bennett said in an e-mail interview. “My two sons, Danny and Daegal, were awarded Emmys for their part in the special’s production, so it was a very special night.”
The singer already had an Emmy, 15 Grammy Awards and more than 50 million albums sold worldwide to his name. But Bennett’s career has been about more than just the accolades. In fact, his life reads like a storybook.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens, N.Y., Bennett came from an immigrant family: his father a grocer, his mother a seamstress. In 1944, he joined the Army and during World War II was involved in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in Germany. During his time in the service, and later during the civil rights movement, Bennett was a vocal opponent to segregation. In 1965, he participated in the historic marches to Selma and Montgomery, Ala.
Bennett actually got his big break, and his stage name, from another legend, Bob Hope. The funnyman saw Bennett performing in Greenwich Village and invited him to sing in his act. But Hope didn’t like his stage name of Joe Bari, so after hearing his real name dubbed him “Tony Bennett.” Clearly, the name stuck.
Shortly after Bennett cut a demo for Columbia Records and the rest is in the record books—some 90 releases in the last 50 years. In recent years, Bennett has reached out to a younger audience, working with artists like Aguilera and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and appearing on “MTV Unplugged.”
In 2006, he released “Duets: An American Classic,” which featured collaborations with everyone from Paul McCartney to the Dixie Chicks, Barbra Streisand and Stevie Wonder. His Emmy-winning special “Tony Bennett: An American Classic” aired in November and featured musical guests Elton John, Michael Buble, John Legend, k.d. lang, Diana Krall and many more.
Over the years, Bennett also has explored his other artistic passion—painting. He began painting as a child and says he still does it every day. His work has exhibited in galleries around the world, and he was the official artist of the 2001 Kentucky Derby.
Last month, Bennett was featured in the PBS “American Masters” documentary series. The program, “Tony Bennett: The Music Never Stops,” was co-produced by and featured Clint Eastwood, who also interviewed the singer.
You are one of the rare veteran performers who keeps attracting young fans to your music. How do you think you’ve been able to appeal to the younger generation while still staying true to your roots?
I think the key to longevity is doing what you love and being true to yourself—the audience always responds to honesty and they don’t like to be fooled. I was trained in an era where the audience was your guide—they would tell you what they liked or what they didn’t and you learned from that. If your goal as a performer is to make sure the audience has a good time, maybe they forget their problems for an hour or two, then you will always have people filling the seats.
You’ve famously dueted with some of the best new and classic artists around. What do you get out of these collaborations?
On this last project, “Duets,” I was amazed and very pleased to see how well prepared and professional each of the artists on the CD was for the recording. We did all the songs live in the studio with my quartet, and some of the duet guests had never recorded that way before. Even so, they all came ready to go and it was a wonderful experience ... and each session was different and unique depending on who the guest artist was that day.
As a singer of the great American standards, how do you feel about contemporary music today? Do you think there is much music out there that will stand the test of time and be considered classic decades from now?
I was very fortunate to grow up in an era that was a true renaissance for popular music. There was this golden age of songwriting where you had the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington all creating music of the highest caliber, and it was extraordinary. There are certainly wonderful composers today, such as Stephen Sondheim and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, but that was a very special time in history when you had this extensive group of songwriters who were truly geniuses.
What do you think it takes to be a great interpreter of songs?
All art is fundamentally about communication, no matter what genre you are considering—painting, theater, dance ... whatever it may be. So the art of interpretation of a song is focusing on both the lyric and the music to discover what the songwriter intended to convey and then filtering that a bit through your own experience ... and as I said before, being honest about your art is a key element.