90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tony Bennett On Zen, Art And His Prolific Music Career

Singer Tony Bennett writes in his new book, “I always knew that I gravitated to singing and painting, because of my family upbringing. Even though we were very poor, my parents placed a high value on the arts.” (Amy Sussman/Invision/AP)

Tony Bennett likes to say that he’s never worked a day in his life. Well, that’s not exactly true.

At the age of 86, the legendary singer carries a full concert schedule, he just released a new album, “Viva Duets,” and published a new book, “Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett” (see book excerpt below).

He’s also an artist. He draws and paints every day.

But as Bennett tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, it never feels like work to him.

“I get up and boy, I can’t wait to paint and study music and keep learning. I just love it,” he said.

Bennett shared some of the lessons he’s learned from Count Basie and Benny Goodman, how Frank Sinatra jump started his career and what happened when he first sang his signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”

Interview Highlights

How Frank Sinatra jump started his career:

Tony Bennett at a recording session in New York City, April 1961. (Sony BMG Music Entertainment/Getty Images)

“I was in Britain and I got a phone call from my son and he said, ‘Wait until you find out what Frank Sinatra said about you in Look Magazine.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘We won’t tell you until you get back to the United States,’ and I said, ‘Come on, don’t do that to me, what did he say?’ And he said, ‘For my money, Tony Bennett was the best singer that I ever heard. He puts more into it than is easily done.’ And it made all of his fans come to see me. And ever since then I’ve been sold out all over the world.”

The lessons he’s learned from Count Basie and Benny Goodman:

Robin: “Who told you, ‘Never start with a closer’?”

Tony: “That was Count Basie. You know, it was my fault because it takes years to learn how to perform properly, and I was so enthusiastic about knocking the audience out that I picked the fastest, hottest number that I could think of and I’d feel so unhappy because the audience didn’t react. And he was the one… I said, ‘What should I do, Basie?’ And he said, ‘Well, you can’t start with a closer.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, you take a song that you introduce like ‘Just in Time’. Just start that way, that’s where the people are at… The tempo is just a nice, relaxed tempo. And then save that fast number for the last thing you’re going to do when you’re leaving the stage.’ And it turned me right around and it changed my performance completely for the better.”

Robin: “Benny Goodman teaches you how to use a microphone… How so? What did he say?”

Tony: “He said, don’t just keep it right up to your mouth, you know? Create nuance with it, you know? Be a little emphatic. Come in closer. When you’re just singing normally, pull it away six inches and it’s a great lesson.”

The first time he sang his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”:

“I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, and working in a club there and we were on our way to San Francisco for the first time and Ralph just saw ‘San Francisco’ and said, ‘Why don’t we do this number? It might connect with the audience.’ And the bartender was listening to us rehearse it in Little Rock, Arkansas and said, ‘I don’t want to interrupt your rehearsal but if you record that song I’m going to be the first one to buy it. And that was the first tip-off that we might have something there.”

On getting bored of singing the same songs:

Robin: “You say in your memoir that you do get asked a lot, do you ever get sick of singing these songs? I mean, it’s been decades. You don’t.”

Tony: “No. I say, ‘Do you get tired of making love?’”

Book Excerpt: ‘Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Tony Bennett’

By: Tony Bennett

I’ve been performing professionally as an entertainer now for over sixty years. Somehow I can’t believe the time has gone by so quickly, yet at other times it seems like six lifetimes. It’s been an amazing journey, and I feel privileged in that I’ve been successful doing what I love for my whole life. Of course there have been many up and downs, which I guess makes me like everyone else - but I can honestly say that I have never failed to try to learn from my mistakes.

I have grown to appreciate the power of believing in myself, and of always having faith in myself. I rarely look back; instead, I always look forward. There is so much of life that we miss when we wallow in regret. It’s important to me to concentrate my energies on all the things I still have yet to learn and experience. As a result, I’ve become a much better person. I’m at peace with myself, and I look forward to each new day.

I was taught never to compromise; to never sing a cheap song. I never look down at the audience and think that they are ignorant, or think that I’m more intelligent than they are. To think otherwise is totally incorrect, and runs contrary to everything I was raised to believe. I was taught by my parents and teachers, who showed me that you should make every move with care, and put the accent on quality. If you apply this philosophy, you will never go wrong. And I have found that, in particular for a performer, the public will pick up on that attitude and will reward you by giving back what you give to them.

I love entertaining people; I strive to make them feel good, and they make me feel wonderful. To explain it simply, I like what I do, and my ambition is to get better as I get older. That’s really what I’m all about.

Tony Bennett was in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. (tonybennett.com)

To my mind, being in the entertainment business is the best job that anyone could have. I get to travel the world over, meeting interesting people and experiencing many cultures. I’ve become close to artists of all ages in music, art, and the theater. I’ve sung for seven presidents, and have performed for royalty. But best of all, I get to meet my fans — the people on the street — face to face. They are the ones that help me stay grounded. I learn more from them than anyone else.

I’m also lucky because I get to work with my family. I’m blessed with creative children: my eldest son Danny has been my manager for over 30 years, and Daegal produces and engineers my records. My daughter Joanna has dedicated her life to philanthropic endeavors; and my youngest, Antonia, is a talented singer in her own right, and often joins me on tour. My wife Susan has worked with me in realizing my dream of establishing a New York City public high school for the performing arts, and she travels with me wherever I go. Being surrounded by family is very important to me.

It’s such a privilege to be able to do what I do. I’ve always been single-minded about my vocation; I never had to ask, “What am I going to do with my life?” I always knew that I gravitated to singing and painting, because of my family upbringing. Even though we were very poor, my parents placed a high value on the arts.

From an early age, I’ve been blessed by knowing that I wanted to be involved in artistic endeavors. I am acquainted with so many intelligent people who seem to know so much, but I often find that they really have no idea what they want to do with their lives; they have no vision or sense of the bigger picture, and often they lack passion. I guess I’m just lucky that way – I’ve always known that I wanted to sing and paint. I’ve always had this drive – this feeling that I have no choice but to do what I do, for as long as I can remember. And fortunately I’m still in that state right now. I’m grateful that to this day, my passion and thirst for knowledge has continued throughout my entire life.

My goal is to improve all the time. Here I am today, at 86, and I’m even more passionate now than ever before. I feel that I’m at the top of my game, and things just keep getting better and better. I’m proud to say that I feel I’ve never worked a day in my life — and I know that’s because I love what I do.

The Zen of Bennett:

Work doesn’t feel like work if you’re passionate about what you do.
Do something to improve yourself, every single day.
Choose a career that encompasses what you gravitate to naturally, and you’ll have a satisfying lifelong vocation.

Excerpted from the book LIFE IS A GIFT: THE ZEN OF BENNETT by Tony Bennett. Copyright © 2012 by Tony Bennett. Reprinted with permission of Harper.

Guest:

  • Tony Bennett, winner of 17 Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards. He’s also a painter and World War II veteran.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 29 5 Comments

Michigan Coach Faces Criticism For Keeping QB In Play

University of Michigan quarterback Shane Morris was having trouble standing on his own after a major sack. The coach kept him in the game.

September 29 24 Comments

Methodist Pastor Faces Last Church Trial

Reverend Frank Schaefer, who was defrocked for officiating his son's same-sex marriage and later reinstated, awaits one more church trial. He writes about the experience in a new memoir.

September 29 5 Comments

Monarch Butterflies Could Be On Rebound

After precipitous declines in the monarch butterfly population, there are signs the species may be on the rebound.

September 26 4 Comments

Dean Of Boston Sports Journalism Celebrates 42 Years On The Job

Here & Now's Robin Young visits the most-beloved sportscaster you've never heard of: Jonny Miller.