Tony Bennett: Truth and beauty are his game

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Tony Bennett performs on June 6 at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre.

In 1979, with no recording contract, few concerts, a failed second marriage and the IRS on his heels, Tony Bennett nearly died from a cocaine overdose.  The former top crooner, whose iconic 1962 hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” made him a household name, had lost touch with contemporary audiences and lost his way in the changing music scene.

Bennett reached out to sons Danny and Dae, who helped turn his faltering career around and found a way for him to appeal to younger audiences without changing his charismatic musical style. Many new fans had never heard his music before, but they appreciated his enormous talent. Bennett’s star began once again to ascend, and it now shines as brightly once more.

At 87, Bennett is a marvel, as energetic and as strong of voice as ever. He’ll demonstrate his talents June 6 at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre. 

Bennett’s also at a point where he can reflect on his life and acknowledge the influences that shaped him and his career.

You’ve managed to transcend style and fashion to create an enduring career. What are the key elements that define Tony Bennett the artist and performer?  I grew up during the Depression .... and every Sunday (my extended family) would come to our house and we would have a big meal. Then all my relatives would sit around in a circle and my brother, sister and I would entertain them. The love and encouragement that I got from my family at that time in my life was so supportive that I knew back then that I wanted to be a performer, and that this was what I am. For the time I am on stage, if the audience can just ... forget about their daily problems and concerns and walk away in a good mood, then that makes me feel terrific. I consider it an honorable profession. 

Is there a single song that best encapsulates your career and contributions to the music industry? Wow, that is truly impossible for me to pinpoint. But I can tell you that, for me, I like to communicate truth and beauty in what I do. That’s my game.

What do you look for in choosing material?  Well, when I got home after being a foot soldier in WWII, I was fortunate enough to study at the American Theatre Wing under the GI Bill. The most important lessons that my teachers taught me ...  was to do only quality material, never play down to an audience.  For me, there was a golden era of master craftsmen among songwriters in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s that make up what’s called the Great American Songbook. I gravitate to the music of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Harry Warren and Irving Berlin.

What is essential for me in choosing a song is being able to connect with what the songwriter is trying to convey. If it generates an emotion or feeling that leads me to say, “Yes, I understand that. I have felt that way,” then I know that I can connect with the audience when I sing it.  

You’ve created a second career as an artist. Tell me about that. I have always had a passion to sing and paint and have been drawing and sketching my whole life. It was actually Duke Ellington who inspired me to take painting more seriously. He told me it was always better to be creative in two things rather than just one. That way if you burned out doing one art form, you could switch to the other form for awhile, but either you way you always stay in a creative zone.  

Artistically, I like to focus on nature since it never disappoints, so I tend to find beautiful landscapes to sketch or paint. I am fortunate that as a performer I travel the world and am able to paint in settings I might never have had the chance to visit otherwise.  On the road I travel with a big sketchpad and have a small pad that I always keep in the breast pocket of my suit jacket. I also have a travel watercolor set that I take with me. 

You’ve been a great supporter of liberal and progressive causes. Do you support marriage equality and gay civil rights? I am a humanist, so I support humanity.  Ella Fitzgerald, who was a dear friend, used to say something to me that was so simple, but yet I found it very profound. She would say, “Tony, we are all here.”  And that really is the truth of the matter — that regardless of race, gender, culture or religion, we are all human beings first and we need to respect and support one another.

You’ve performed with a number of gay or gay-friendly artists, including k.d. lang and Lady Gaga. What were those experiences like? I just love working with k.d. lang. The first time I heard her sing, I knew that she had “it,” just like Judy Garland. She has an extraordinary talent, but she makes it seem so effortless and natural. We made an album together, then she sang on both of my duets records, and we toured together. I just adore working with her and being with her. She is a lovely person.  

The first time I saw Lady Gaga was when we both performed at a New York City event for the Robin Hood Foundation, which supports the homeless.  I was completely amazed at what a very good singer and piano player she was. We are working on a collaborative jazz album together that I hope will come out later this year.  She has an excellent understanding of jazz and the popular standards, and I think her fans will love getting a chance to hear her sing this genre of music. (The album, currently titled Cheek to Cheek, has no set release date.)

You bring an energy and vibrancy to your performances that would be the envy of a performer half your age. Where do you get your strength and inspiration? Thank you. I can only say that I truly feel like I have never worked a day in my life, because I have been able to make a living doing the two things that I love the most — singing and painting. I think if you have a passion for something — art, music, literature, cooking or whatever it may be — and it makes you feel fulfilled, then it keeps you going.  And I always try to learn something new every day.