Tony Bennett plays Altria
By Joan Tupponce
Seventeen-time Grammy Award-winning singer Tony Bennett moved about the backstage area at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in 2011 as he waited to take the stage. He was there to perform for the Robin Hood Foundation gala, an event that raises money to help fight poverty in the city.
He was excited not just because he was performing, but also because he was finally getting to see the flamboyant Lady Gaga work her magic on the crowd.
“I had heard about Lady Gaga,” Bennett said, speaking from his home in New York. “I couldn’t believe the reaction of the audience. I had never heard such a strong reaction. I went backstage and met her mother and father. I couldn’t believe how much talent she has. I told her that we should do an album.”
Bennett, who will be performing at Altria Theater on Dec. 18, made good on his offer, inviting Lady Gaga to sing on his 2011 “Duets II” album. This year he teamed with her again to record the album “Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek.”
Working with the headline-grabbing singer was a revelation for the traditional crooner. When the two began recording “Cheek to Cheek” the recording studio looked like any run-of-the-mill studio, but that quickly changed when Lady Gaga took creative license with the room.
“By the time the recording was finished, we had a movie set of a glamorous living room,” Bennett said. “She is very talented, and she has a lot of taste.”
The pair’s new album features a variety of standards from Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” to Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
With the album’s release Sept. 23, Bennett broke his own record set in 2011 when “Duets II” debuted at No. 1 when he was 85. Now 88, Bennett remains the oldest artist in music industry history to have an album at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts. The album marks Lady Gaga’s third consecutive No. 1 album release in just over three years.
In October, PBS aired “Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek Live” on Thirteen’s Great Performances.
“It was a real partnership with the two of them. They just adore each other,” said Bennett’s elder son and manager, Danny Bennett, speaking from his home in New York. “They are great friends. She puts a little spark in his step, which is noticeable in the show.”
There was an obvious shared respect in their collaboration, even though they are separated in age by 60 years.
“She’s an old soul,” Danny said of Lady Gaga. “She listened to Tony, and he listened to her, too.”
Danny started managing his father’s career in 1979 when Bennett was between record labels. “It kind of evolved organically,” he said. “We always had discussions on various things about the business. I was always interested in the business side, in particular the marketing side.”
Even though he grew up sharing family dinners with some of the country’s greatest entertainers, Danny was never impressed with the glamorous world of showbiz.
“I have never been star-struck,” he said. “I am art-struck. Great art is about arresting the imagination. It puts you in the moment. I try to recognize great art and figure out how to sell it. That is what I have done with Tony.”
Danny’s strategy was straightforward. He wanted to introduce his father’s vocal art to a younger audience. In the early 1980s, he booked Bennett on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and as a character on “The Simpsons.”
Bennett also performed at stadium concerts in the mid-1990s with the likes of English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and rock group Nine Inch Nails.
Feeling a bit uncertain about his new course, Bennett one day asked his son if the legendary Frank Sinatra would be following this unconventional path.
“I said, ‘No, he wouldn’t, and that is why we are doing it,’ ” Danny said.
Bennett thoroughly enjoys introducing younger audiences to the tunes of musical greats such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
“The contemporary, popular radio stations play a different kind of music that I don’t go for,” he said. “They don’t sound like they will be great standards — songs that will always be loved. This is something different than what (kids) get on the radio.”
Bennett believes that quality never goes out of style. It never panders to a popular fad.
“(F.W.) Woolworth went out of business, but Tiffany (& Co.) is still in business,” he said, using a retail analogy to explain his philosophy.
And so it goes with Bennett. In the past 10 years, the 2005 Kennedy Center honoree has sold 10 million records. He is one of only a few artists to have albums charting in seven decades.
“He does 80 to 90 shows a year,” Danny said of his father. “The most important thing for him is the interaction with the audience.”
Bennett’s devotion to music came naturally. As a child, he grew up in the Astoria section of Queens.
“I had a wonderful Italian-American family,” he said. “Every Sunday, my aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews would come over. My brother, sister and I would sing. It created a wonderful passion that has sustained my life.”
His big break came in 1949 when he was performing in Greenwich Village with singer Pearl Bailey. Comedian Bob Hope saw him in the show and went to talk with him in his dressing room.
“He got a kick out of me and put me on tour,” Bennett said. “My whole life turned around right there.”
Music, however, isn’t Bennett’s only artistic love. He is as passionate about painting as he is about singing. He paints under his real name — Anthony Benedetto. His painting “Homage to Hockney” is on display at the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio, and his portrait of Ellington is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection in Washington.
“Music and painting complement one another,” Bennett said. “In both, you learn what to leave out and how to simplify things. Music and art teach each other how to do it right.”
Bennett paints every day, even when he is on tour.
“When I see something that I think might be a good painting, I go for it,” he said.
“Tony is not a Sunday painter. He considers himself a painter first,” Danny said. “He is more serious about painting than singing. Singing comes naturally. In painting, he is truly a student of the arts. He never stops learning.”
Danny’s respect for his father led him to produce the documentary “The Zen of Bennett,” an intimate look at his father’s life. The film includes segments from recording sessions for the “Duets II” album. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. The project gave him more of an appreciation for his father’s personal philosophies of life.
“It’s about understanding and appreciating every day,” he said. “You have to stay with your passion and integrity and stick to your guns. I share that. For every hour you are awake, you have to be productive and true to yourself.”
Bennett is appreciative of the way his son has managed his career.
“I can just sing and paint,” he told Danny, “and that is a gift.”
He values family most of all. In addition to Danny, Bennett has three other children, two of whom, son Dae and daughter Antonia, work with him as well. Antonia will perform with her father in Richmond.
“I love them,” he said of the children. “I do all of this for them.”