Tony Bennett Turns 90, Reflects on 70 Years of Music Superstardom

Tony Bennett
Peter Kramer/NBC
TONY BENNETT CELEBRATES 90: THE BEST IS YET TO COME -- Red Carpet -- Pictured: (l-r) -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC)

Tony Bennett may not dig contemporary music, but the venerable crooner, whose multiple awards include 19 Grammys and two Emmys, can still rock the joint. When he stepped on the Radio City Music Hall stage and sang several of his favorite tunes to cap NBC’s star-studded tribute concert, Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come, he more than held his own in a company that included such musical luminaries as Michael Bublé, Elton John, k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga.

A few weeks later, in his airy Manhattan artist’s studio facing Central Park—he lives in the stately building next door with his third wife, Susan—Bennett shared highlights of his extraordinary career of nearly 70 years and the concert he dubbed “One of the greatest things that ever happened to me. It will be forever be in my heart.”

You still really swing. How do you keep your voice in good condition despite all the wear and tear?
I trained in the bel canto technique. You spend 10 to 15 minutes warming up by practicing your vowel sounds. Then you go out and perform, and it’s effortless.

You’ve collaborated with a lot of big names. How did it feel to watch so many of them sing those songs at the concert?
It’s really special that they performed for me on my birthday concert. More young artists should try standards and jazz. I was asked to do rock years ago; I didn’t like it then and I still don’t today. So much of the music is mediocre. I’ve never had a quick hit that’s forgotten after a few weeks.

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

Tony Bennett dances with pal and collaborator Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga has become a close friend after you performed with her on your chart-topping albums Duets II and Cheek to Cheek. She even has your original surname, Benedetto, tattooed on her arm! Why have you two clicked?
We’re both Italian-American and we really get each other. The first time I met her, she had just [wowed] an audience at a benefit concert, and I told her that someday we should record together. She said, “I’d love to!” We did one right away [he snaps his fingers] and it sold millions.

How did your musical career start?
My older brother John sang on the radio when he was a child. He didn’t like the fame it brought, but I did. I was so impressed, I thought I’d give it a go. Bob Hope gave me my big break. He saw me in a Greenwich Village club where I was singing with Pearl Bailey [in 1949] and he took me on tour with him. He also gave me the name Tony Bennett! He thought Anthony Dominick Benedetto was too long for a marquee.

Your signature song is “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” from 1962. Did you know from the start that it would be a breakout hit?
Ralph Sharon, my longtime musical director, found it. I remember him playing it for the first time down south, and a bartender saying, “If you record that song, I’ll be the first one to buy it.” That was the first tip-off that it might be something special.

Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra on the Sinatra and Friends special in 1977.

When musical tastes changed, you had a rough time. Then you came back with some of the best albums of your life, including Steppin’ Out in 1993, which brought you to MTV and a younger audience.
That’s true. But the public’s always been so good to me. All I try to do is make people feel good. If they leave very content about the show, I’m very content.

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In November you published your third memoir, Just Getting Started. You wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom you marched. Why was he important to you?
Fighting in the Second World War made me appreciate civil rights and that people are terribly wrong to fight with each other. Life is too beautiful. We should just appreciate it.

Then there was Frank Sinatra, whom you’ve called your best friend.
He was, along with being the best male singer in my lifetime. I’m proud that in one of his last interviews, he was asked, “Mr. Sinatra, everybody listens to you. Who do you listen to?” He said, “Tony Bennett.”

You’re not only an active performer but a prolific respected painter. Any plans to slow down?
No. I still have lots of concerts lined up, and I paint every day. I love going into Central Park early in the morning, before the public gets there, to paint nature. My whole life is singing and painting. I’m 90 and I want to keep proving that you can get better as you get older. What an adventure it’s been.

Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 9/8c, NBC, @itstonybennett