Photo by Mark Seliger
“I love what’s going on,” Tony Bennett says. And he should. The 88-year-old singer’s new collaboration with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek, has hit the top of the Billboard pop charts. The disc is a fun throwback, with Bennett’s easy-going burr guiding the good lady through a stylish jazz vocal workshop. “She wanted to give up singing, but after doing the great American songbook with me, she never wants to stop performing again,” he says. With a career that began in the late 1940s, the legendary Bennett continues to sing the standards and set them, too.
RM: Frank Sinatra called you his favorite singer. Were the two of you close?
Bennett: When I first started, they gave me a television show as a summer replacement for Perry Como, and I was very nervous. I went to the Paramount and [Sinatra] invited me to his dressing room. I asked him how he handled nervousness being on live television. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “If the audience thinks you’re nervous, they’ll support you even more.” He eliminated a lot of fear that I had about performing. It was a distant relationship, but I was really his best friend, to the very end of his life; his family told me that he loved me more than anyone else in the business. Like a brother.
RM: You are an accomplished painter. How does the art influence the music and vice versa?
Bennett: It really is the same thing — the art world teaches you to sing and the singing teaches you to paint, because it’s all about learning what to leave out, how to simplify something, how to communicate. Right now I’m doing a lot of paintings and sketches of Lady Gaga.
RM: Talk about working with her.
Bennett: She’s a very natural singer, very talented. It was the very first time she sang in an improvised way. We did an album of the great American songs — Cole Porter, Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern. We talked about it, and the one song she was really enthused about was “Lush Life” — she said, “That’s my life. Everything that’s ever happened to me is in that song.” She just sang her heart out on it. And I answer her with the Duke Ellington song, “Sophisticated Lady,” which is how she is now.
RM: Those classic songs you sing still resonate. What’s the appeal?
Bennett: The songs from the ’20s and ’30s are America’s classical music, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not light entertainment. All of the songs are just quality and it really pays off. The Lady Gaga album, it is never going to go out of style. The music of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, those records still sound like they were recorded yesterday.
M: How did you find your signature song?
Bennett: Ralph Sharon [Bennett’s longtime arranger] found “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” for me. He had it in his drawer; some friends of his wrote it, and we were on our way to San Francisco and he said, “Let’s try this one.” At my first rehearsal when I was singing it, people watching the rehearsal were rushing up to me saying that I had to record it as soon as possible. It’s changed my life.
RM: Do you ever get sick of performing it?
Bennett: I never sing a song the same way — every night is a little different. It never bores me, and my musicians are improvised jazz artists, so they play it a little different each night, wherever we are. No, I’ll never get tired of that song. What they’ve done for me in that city — they adore me. I don’t even live there, because it would be impossible, and I wouldn’t have any privacy at all.
Tony Bennett performs at the Altria Theater on Dec. 18. 8 p.m. $55 to $115. (800) 514-3849 or altriatheater.com.