Tony Bennett Takes the Spotlight
by mikael wood
photography by martin schoeller
|Onstage at the Latin Casino in Philadelphia in 1958|
|Bennett receives a warm welcome in Kansas City in ’58|
At 85 years old, Tony Bennett is beginning to feel comfortable sharing the secrets of his success. Chief among them? “I never did disco,” the legendary pop crooner confides with a knowing chuckle. “I never did rap. I never tried to make a hit record that would be quickly forgotten.” Instead, Bennett’s guiding principle—one he’s stuck with over the course of a 60-plus-year career—has been deceptively simple. “I just kept being myself,” he says. “And I never compromised. I made songs that last.”
In fact, he's still making them. This month Bennett’s latest album, Duets II, has earned him two Grammy nominations, including Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. When it was released last September, the disc debuted atop the Billboard 200, earning Bennett his very first No. 1 album and setting a record for the oldest-living act to reach the sales chart’s pinnacle.
A sequel to 2006’s Duets: An American Classic (which itself won Bennett his 13th Grammy, his fourth for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album), the disc captures Bennett in close collaboration with a host of singers from across the stylistic spectrum—some close to Bennett’s turf (think Natalie Cole and k.d. lang), and some considerably less so (Mariah Carey and Willie Nelson). Duets II also pairs Bennett with a number of younger stars such as Lady Gaga, John Mayer, and the late Amy Winehouse, whose final recorded performance before her death last July was her and Bennett’s smoky rendition of the jazz standard “Body and Soul” (the single nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance).
“What’s incredible about Tony is that he’s doing it as well right now as he’s ever done it,” says Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy, which presides over the Grammys. “And the other thing is he reaches back and forward at the same time, taking his extraordinary interpretations of the great classic songs and looking to share that stage with the artists of today. You listen to his records, and you’re learning something at the same time you’re being entertained. There’s so much Grammy spirit in what he does.”
“I’ve sat at the Hollywood Bowl with my wife and watched Tony play,” says Michael Bublé, who calls recording with Bennett (on both Duets albums) one of the few “I-made-it moments” in his life. “It’s so nice to process what’s happening at those concerts, and it gives me a clue as to what’s happening in my audience as well. It’s people of all ages—they’ve got their arms around each other, smiling and connecting.”
In the same way Bublé tips his hat to Bennett—the man born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926 in Astoria, Queens—the icon acknowledges his debt to the musicians he refers to as his masters: Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. “They were 10 years older than I was,” says Bennett. “They were the ones who made me say, ‘Someday I’d like to be like that.’ And those records, you play them today, and they don’t sound dated. Nat King Cole singing ‘Lush Life’—it’s gorgeous. Same with Sinatra and ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’—that’ll never get old-fashioned. It’ll be good 30 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, because it was made that well. I just wanted to stay away from obsolescence. If I do something, I want it to be top quality. And I feel very satisfied with my career that way.”
How could he not? This year’s Grammy nominations could add to a mantel already heavy with awards, including a Record of the Year win in 1962 for Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” as well as an Album of the Year statue for his 1995 MTV Unplugged set. In 2001, The Recording Academy bestowed him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor he says still stirs him.
“The Grammys have been fantastic for me,” says Bennett. “I’ve had a beautiful life because of them. Each year, I’ve been at the top of my game [at the Grammys], and they’ve kicked up publicity for the next season and kept me going for many years. It’s pretty wonderful.” Beyond the thrill of victory, the singer says the ceremony offers an incomparable networking opportunity. “It’s the best convention in the entertainment world,” he says with a laugh. “You run into everybody in the business—not only the performers, but also the producers and record executives. It’s a circus.” That’s been especially true, Bennett adds, for the shows held inside the Grammys’ current home, Downtown LA’s Staples Center. “It was a little more intimate” at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where the awards were last handed out in 1998, he says. “But the one in LA is tremendous. It feels like the whole world is there.”
photography by kelsey bennett (lady gaga); Don Hunstein courtesy of columbia records (copacabana, spotlight); arnold newman (kansas city); kelsey bennett (winehouse)
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.