“This is it,” says our unusually chatty New York City taxi driver as we pull up alongside the horse-drawn carriages queued-up on the edge of Central Park.
I step out of the cab with my 19-year-old daughter, Jill, staring straight up at our destination: The residence of Tony Bennett –— music icon, keeper of the Great American Songbook and the world’s greatest singer, according to Frank Sinatra.
The interior of the highrise evokes Bennett (real name: Anthony Benedetto, Queens-born and raised): grand, elegant and formal. His wife, Susan Benedetto, greets us at the door of their 15th-floor apartment with a warm welcome, offering tea, coffee, water … and wine. No staff, just Susan, and the family dog, Happy, the picture-perfect white Maltese. The first thing that catches our eye — and takes our breath away — is the spectacular view looking out across the expansive canopy of green. Springtime in New York.
As we peel our eyes from the scene, details inside the apartment come into focus. The memorabilia and photos that make up the life of a living legend: a framed and signed photograph of Sinatra, the Kennedy Center Honor awarded to Bennett in 2005, a mounted 1949 album — the first Bennett ever recorded. Sitting atop Bennett’s piano: photos of Willie Brown and Charlotte Shultz, and Bennett and Lady Gaga.
In walks Bennett.
Even at 91, he still has that star quality -— and those piercing blue eyes and warm smile. He joins Susan on the couch, underneath a black-and-white David Hockney painting. The two are clearly in love. Our conversation runs the gamut from his status as an honorary San Franciscan, with a city street being named after him on June 2, to enlisting Gaga as a tour-mate and collaborator to the secret of his remarkable career longevity.
Take it away, Tony …
You are memorialized in a bronze statue at the Fairmont. Soon, the street in front of the hotel will be renamed Tony Bennett Way in your honor. What do these tributes mean to you? Tony: Well, it’s unbelievable. I’m just happy to be an American and to be loved by San Francisco.
Do you remember the first time you heard “I Left my Heart in San Francisco?” Tony: Of course. We were on our way to San Francisco and Ralph Sharon — who was my accompanist at the time — said, “You have to listen to this song.” That was the first time I had ever heard it.
And on that trip, we had a show at a little club in Hot Springs, Arkansas. We were rehearsing the song and a musician came over and said: “If you record that song, it’s going to be a big hit.” So when we got to San Francisco, we started performing it and everybody said “Where did you find that song? You need to record it right away.” We recorded it and, sure enough, it became the biggest record I ever had.
Do you remember the first time you sang it in public? Tony: It was at the Fairmont Hotel.
Why do you think that song has so much appeal — even beyond San Francisco? Tony: All I know is that it gets a great reaction everywhere. As a tunesmith, I look for songs like that — but this is bigger than any song I ever did.
Your career has taken you all around the world. What makes San Francisco special? Tony: It’s a beautiful place. It’s very romantic. And it’s loved by the whole world. There are many great love stories that have come out of San Francisco.
Susan: Like you and me!
Tony: Susan’s right. I met her there and we fell in love right away and we’ve been in love ever since.
Susan, tell me about meeting Tony for the first time. Susan: My folks would take me to see Tony at the Fairmont, and so I was a big fan growing up. I was the president of his fan club for San Francisco, so that was my entrée to get backstage. He was always nice and would say hello. As I got a little older, he was in town to do a private engagement. By this time, I had met him a few times. So, I called him up and asked him if I could come to the show. He said, “Sure, you can be my date.” I quickly dumped the guy I was with that afternoon, raced home, changed, went up to the city and saw the show. We went out afterward and that was about 33 years ago now.
That’s great. And then what happened? Susan: Well, I figured this guy’s never going to call me again. I went back down to LA to school and two or three weeks later, he called. He said, “I’m in town.” And, I was like “Holy moley.” We just kept things going and here we are today.
Let’s get back to singing … what makes a great song? Tony: An audience. If they like it, that’s it. It’s as simple as that.
In the ’90s, a brand-new audience — a younger audience — found you. How do you explain that cross-generational appeal, particularly when you have always done the same thing? Tony: I can’t explain it, but it happened and it’s kept me going all these years. Wherever I’ve played, I’ve been sold out, all over the world.
You’ve done a couple duet albums, singing with the biggest superstars — Elton John, Amy Winehouse, Paul McCartney and, most recently, Lady Gaga. What was it like working with her? Tony: Oh, she’s so talented. I have to remind her how talented she is. She knows it, but yet she doesn’t know how great she really is. She’s just one of the best artists I’ve ever met.
You two have a lot of chemistry. Was it instant? Tony: We’ve never made a wrong move together. We get along great.
If you were to do another duet album, who would you like to collaborate with? Tony: Well, there are so many great performers, but I’ll say Beyoncé. I would like to do something with her someday.
You have been performing for more than 70 years. What’s your secret? Tony: Well, I’ve always believed in staying with quality — never doing a piece of junk just to get a hit record at the moment. I stayed away from that. I only did songs that would last. It takes a while to find just the right ones.
You talk a lot about not compromising quality and you say that value came from your mother. Can you speak to that? Tony: My father died early in my life, so my mother had to raise three children and she worked so hard. She made dresses and she taught me the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned. She said, “Don’t ever have me work on a bad dress. If it’s a good dress, I’ll work on it and make sure it comes out right.” So, I applied that theory to music and never made a bad song. Every song is a worthwhile song to sing.
Where did your love of music come from? Tony: Louis Armstrong. He was the king back then. In fact, he still is. He is the one who made American popular music internationally. He went to Europe and they couldn’t believe how wonderful he was. He was the first one to promote American music and he taught us all how to sing American music.
At this point in your career, do you still get nervous before a performance? Tony: Yes. I’m nervous about this interview!
I’m flattered! Tony: It’s not so much nerves before a performance — you just hope everything works out. Frank Sinatra once told me, “Don’t worry about being nervous.” He said, “If you’re nervous, that means you care and the audience will sense that and they’ll root for you. It’s when you’re not nervous and you don’t care — that’s when you’re in trouble.”
You paint every day.What do you paint? Tony: Nature. I love it. I go to the view from my window. I see all the way up to Harlem and the whole park. It’s gorgeous. Everybody thinks New York is just covered with a lot of buildings, but I look out the window and for miles and miles, I just see green grass, beautiful green grass.
Who inspires you artistically? Tony: I’ve always been a big fan of Frank Sinatra. He was always way ahead of the game, so he was a big influence in my life.
And he said you were the world’s greatest singer. Tony: What did he know?
You and Susan are very involved in bringing the arts to high school students. Case in point: You founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts here in New York. Tell me about that. Susan: In public schools, the arts and sports are the first things to be cut when budgets are tough —and, of course, those are the two things that keep many kids in school. Years ago, I was working in an arts school and Tony would come to visit and perform for the kids. One time, when he was visiting, he said: “We should start our own school.” And that’s exactly what we did. We wanted it to be a public school. Tony went to public schools. I taught in public schools.
Who came up with the name? Susan: It was 1998, I think. Sinatra had just passed and so Tony said, “This is something I’ll do and we’ll name it after my best friend, Frank Sinatra.” In 2001, the Sinatra School opened and we’ve been going strong ever since. Our nonprofit now supports 38 schools between New York and Los Angeles.
Tony, you’ve sold millions of albums worldwide. You have 19 Grammy awards, you’ve performed for 11 presidents and you’ve marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King. What has been the greatest honor of your life? Tony: Meeting Susan, being an American and the reaction I get from my audiences. I can’t even describe how phenomenal that has been in my life.