Back when he was singing for his supper as a young crooning waiter in his hometown of Astoria, Queens, Tony Bennett probably had no inkling his voice would be his lifelong meal ticket. From his first No. 1 hit, “Because of You,” in 1951, through his signature 1962 tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” on down through today’s popular recordings of duets with a host of younger singers, Bennett has weathered the ups and downs of a career virtually unprecedented in its longevity.
He turns 88 on Aug. 3, and his husky pipes, a mellow blend of merlot and cabernet, are still serving him well. He’ll appear Aug. 15 at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre in Sterling Heights.
Bennett, who has racked up 17 Grammys, can attribute a good deal of his recent success to cross-generational appeal. He has connected with a younger audience, first with the platinum-selling MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett in 1994, then at age 80 when he released Duets: An American Classic, a recording with such singers as John Legend, Sting, Elton John, and k.d. lang. Bennett and lang then teamed up for a separate album, A Wonderful World.
The duets magic continued with the 2011 release of Duets II, in which Bennett partnered with everyone from John Mayer and Lady Gaga to Queen Latifah and k.d. lang (do you sense a k.d. pattern here?). A year later, Bennett dropped Viva Duets, in which he joined forces with Latin American stars, including Gloria Estefan and Marc Anthony.
Bennett is also an accomplished visual artist, signing his works “Benedetto,” his given Italian surname. He tries to paint every day; Bennett’s oils, watercolors, and sketches include landscapes and portraits of musicians. Three of his paintings are in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, including a watercolor of Duke Ellington that he donated to mark the jazzman’s 110th anniversary.
Bennett continues to be committed to arts education and civil-rights causes. Hour Detroit spoke to him via telephone from his home in New York City.
My favorite album of yours is the first recording you did with [jazz pianist] Bill Evans, back in 1975.
Oh, wow. Thank you. I respect you immediately because anyone who likes Bill Evans has good ears and can appreciate music. There isn’t a piano player in the world who hasn’t told me they’d like to imitate the way Bill Evans played the piano.
I read in your 2012 book, Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett, that it was one of your favorite albums.
Yes. Bill’s engineer and manager were there, and it was very simple. We spent four days doing it, and I can’t tell you what a great experience it was. Once we decided on a tune, Bill would say, “Let me work it out.” Then he would spend about three-quarters of an hour trying different things. I kept running into the audio room, saying, “Record this!” And they’d say, “We’ve run out of tape; we won’t be able to do it.” In those days it was all on tape.
I interviewed k.d. lang several years ago, and she just raved about you. You and she obviously have a special chemistry. What accounts for that?
She’s a very honest singer. The minute she starts singing, you know it’s for real; it’s not just someone singing who doesn’t care. It’s someone who gets the whole feeling of a song down and gives it a terrific performance. The audience adores her. We were in Australia for about a month, and the audience didn’t want to let her go. … And the funny thing is, she’s not trying to be bigger than anybody or the best; she just loves to sing. And she loves to paint, so she and I have a lot in common.
Was the idea for these Duets albums your son [and manager] Danny’s?
It was. I couldn’t believe the reaction. We went all over the world to the different artists wherever they lived, and recorded in their surroundings.
Speaking of your family, I know your daughter Antonia often sings with you. Do you know yet if she’ll be appearing with you in Detroit?
It’s too far ahead. I know she’s going to Israel; her husband was born in Israel, so she might be there then. … She’s usually always with me, though, about 99 percent of the time.
I listened to one of your early recordings, “Because of You,” and thought, “Tony Bennett is definitely a tenor.” But then I listened to some of your mid- and late-career recordings and thought you sounded at times like a high baritone. How would you categorize your voice?
I’m a tenor, but I make-believe I’m a baritone. I was influenced by Frank Sinatra’s wonderful voice, and he had those low notes — which I haven’t got. Sometimes I take a song down a key and sing more intimately than usual.
You perform all over the world, but you’ve sung in Detroit many times. Do you have any special memories or impressions of this area?
I remember that Detroit had the same excitement as New York, and that’s the only city I felt that way about. The audience is really with the performers. They love to be entertained. My premise has always been to look for very intelligent songs because I respect the audience; I don’t look down on them. I don’t try to make a song a hit record. My records sell because the songs are written well. I have great respect for the audience and always insist that the songs should be highly intelligent.
Has painting made you a better musician, and vice versa? Are they complementary?
They are complementary. In fact, the same rudiments of music pertain to the same rudiments of painting. Rules like learning what to leave out, learning when to stop.
I love your portrait of Sinatra. You drew just the microphone stand, the cord, a bow tie, and fedora. There’s no face, but there’s no mistaking who it is. Very clever.
[Laughs] Thank you very much.
But I read your favorite painting is the watercolor you did of Duke Ellington.
He was very close to my family. My mom once cooked a great Italian meal for his whole orchestra. We got along great. He was just wonderful to me, and in his autobiography he wrote that my family was one of the nicest he’d ever met.
You painted him with roses in the background. I’ve heard the story behind that is he used to send you roses after he wrote a new piece.
That’s true. Whenever roses got delivered, I’d say, “Well, Duke’s written another song.” That painting is now in the Smithsonian.
I heard you took up sculpting not long ago.
I have a great master by the name of Everett Kinstler, who’s the best portrait painter in America — a very distinguished painter. I went to art school with him years ago. For 35 years, he’s been teaching me. The reason he suggested I learn to sculpt was so I could learn every aspect of a person’s face. Harry Belafonte is a great friend of mine, and I figured he’d make a good subject. I ended up learning so much about the front of his face, the sides of the face, and the back of his head. By doing that, when you sketch anybody, you know where everything belongs: the mouth, the eyes, the nose, chin, and ears. It was quite an experience.
You helped found the nonprofit Exploring the Arts (ETA) with your wife, Susan, which also funds the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria. Could you talk a bit about what arts and education mean to you?
We now have 13 public schools [through ETA] in the five boroughs of New York, and three schools in Los Angeles, and eventually we’d like to expand it throughout the country so that there’s an arts program in every public school. The reason it’s important is that artists think in terms of truth and beauty; it’s humanistic. The arts teach you how to live. That’s the ambition, and we’re happy with the results in so many schools that we visited. They’re doing so well, you can’t believe it. And they all end up going to col-lege; there are no dropouts.
One thing that makes you a classic is that when you perform you still wear a suit and tie. When John Mayer came to the studio to record the “One for My Baby” duet, he showed up in a suit, which is a tribute to you.
[Laughs.] Well, John has a lot of quality. My mom was a very good teacher; she always taught my brother and myself always to have nice, neat clothes, even though we came from poverty during the Depression when I was very young. She said, “You always have to have a nice, clean white shirt and nice black pants. And every Sunday you have to wear a suit.” She gave us good lessons.
You stay so active. Can you talk about any new projects you have planned?
I’m in the process right now of recording an album with Lady Gaga. It’s still not finished, but it’s coming along wonderfully. She’s surprising everybody when she sings because she’s doing great standards with me on this album. She’s just one step below Ella Fitzgerald. … I say that as a great compliment. She’s a wonderful singer.
Aug. 15 at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Pkwy., Sterling Heights. Doors open at 6 p.m.; showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $20-$125; 888-929-7849 or 586-268-9700; freedomhill.net
Tony Bennett Photograph courtesy of Columbia Records, Don Hunstein