Most 92-year-olds don't tour the world, singing in front of thousands of people in a finely tailored suit. Most 92-year-olds aren't Tony Bennett.
The indefatigable showman, who will turn 93 in August, will bring his eternally sunny disposition and elegant renditions from the Great American Songbook to Davenport's Adler Theatre Wednesday night, June 5. The opening act will be his 45-year-old daughter, Antonia.
Winner of 19 Grammys, Tony Bennett was nominated for another for his latest recording, "Love Is Here to Stay," a collaboration with longtime friend and colleague Diana Krall. The album celebrates the music of George and Ira Gershwin.
In 2017, the Library of Congress presented Bennett with The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
His sixth book, "Tony Bennett: On Stage and in The Studio," which was recently published, explores Bennett's recording career, highlighted by an extensive array of photos, memorabilia and artwork.
In 2014, he released an album with Lady Gaga, "Cheek to Cheek," featuring jazz standards. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, making Bennett the oldest musical artist, then 88, to have an album top the Billboard 200. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Album.
A Chicago Tribune review of a Bennett concert at Ravinia last September said it was “the depth of Bennett’s insights, the breadth of his expressive range and the delicious idiosyncrasies of his interpretations — with its abundant alternative notes and operatic flourishes — that rendered this performance a tour de force. Even factoring out the matter of age, Bennett reminded listeners why his career continually seems to expand: for the durability of his art, though impressive, ultimately is overshadowed by its profundity, which keeps listeners coming back for more.”
Born Anthony Benedetto in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., the legendary entertainer and frequent painter recently responded to emailed questions from the Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com:
How do you account for your amazing longevity and enduring popularity?
“When I first started out at Columbia Records in 1950, my goal was always to create a hit catalog and not just go after hit songs. I often was asked to record novelty songs that would hit it big for six weeks and then be instantly forgotten, but I stood my ground and strived to only record songs that I felt had a timeless quality that would last forever. I learned from my mother to stick with quality. She was a seamstress, and she often would bring work home to make extra money.
“I would sit by her when I was a young boy while she worked, and she was always very quiet and focused on what she was doing, but every once in a while, she would take a dress and throw it over her should and exclaim, 'I won’t work on a bad dress!' I think I must have been paying attention to that and kept that philosophy in my head, so years later I would take that approach to what songs I would perform live and record. I think that has a lot to do with creating longevity — sticking with quality material.”
What are the biggest challenges and benefits in performing at almost 93?
“I feel great, and I just want to keep on going as long as possible — so I don’t find performing a challenge at all. It just continues to be a wonderful blessing to still be able to sing for an audience and entertain them, and my hope is that while they are in the theater, they forget about their own daily problems and worries and just have a good time. I love making people feel good with my music.”
Why is it important for you to keep touring and recording?
“It’s funny, as 20 years ago, I was always being asked if I ever planned on retiring and I would say, 'Retire to what? I am doing what I love most in the whole world.' And now, instead of being asked when I will retire, everyone tells me, 'Tony, just keep on going.' I met the singer Joe Williams on a plane many years ago, and we were talking about our life as singers, and Joe said to me, 'It’s not that we want to sing; it’s that we HAVE to sing.' And he was right about that.”
What makes the Great American Songbook so great?
“The '20s, '30s and '40s was a golden age of songwriting, when you had absolute master craftsmen such as Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern — just an astounding group of songwriters all writing popular songs at the same time. It was a real renaissance, and the result was The Great American Songbook that is one of America’s greatest contributions to world culture.
“Wherever I go around the world to perform, the audience all know these songs, can sing the lyrics, and love them. The music is of the highest level, and the lyrics communicate across demographics, age and culture, which allow them to transcend and remain timeless.”
Why don't you get tired of singing some of the same songs after 70 years?
“I fell in love with jazz in the 1940s and have never stopped, and under the G.I. Bill of Rights after I returned home from World War II, I had the opportunity to study at The American Theatre Wing. One of my teachers, Mimi Speer, encouraged me to study jazz instrumentalists and how they played their instruments to gain insight in developing my own vocal style. So I have always gravitated toward working with jazz musicians.
“They are consummate artists who have such expertise that they are able to improvise on the spot, so when I tour, I have a magnificent jazz quartet, so every night we play each song differently. And if we want to change the tempo or add a new song, it can be done during the show so it keeps each performance in the moment and spontaneous — so it never feels repetitive.”
What do you enjoy most about partnering with singers like Krall and Gaga?
“It’s all about proper involvement, so with all the duets we have done over the years, it’s been about working with artists who love the material — even artists who may have not ever performed or recorded popular standards before, but who understand the legacy of the music. That’s really been my premise with all the duet albums, to promote the Great American Songbook and work with contemporary artists whose fans will then discover this incredible treasure trove of songs.”
What's been a highlight of your career?
“You just brought up Lady Gaga, and I would have to say that recording and touring with Lady has been a true pleasure and has become much more than just recording a duet together. Our families get along, and she has such talent — and when I saw her jazz show in Las Vegas, it astounded me as to how spectacular she is as a performer. There is an excitement she generates and a connection to the audience that is very rare.”
Do you still paint regularly, and if so, why?
“Yes, I still paint and sketch as I have been doing so all my life. It was Duke Ellington who noticed how much time I spent painting and told me that I should really make it a priority as much as performing. He said it’s better to do two things creatively then just one. And it’s been a yin-yang relationship that allows me to stay in a creative zone without getting burned out. If I get a bit tired from singing, then I go to my studio and paint, and four hours goes by like four minutes, and then when I am done I am ready to jump back on stage again and sing.”