The Not So Secret Stories Behind Tony Bennett’s Songs

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Why Tony Bennett's Life Story Is In His Songs

The secret to the success of Tony Bennett's songs is that he sings naked, naked that is in emotion and exposed as few people ever are. The Tony Bennett you hear eases into your ear without disguises or pretense. He's the real deal and without equal.

What makes Tony Bennett irresistible is that he invites you to see right through him. He opens himself up every day. Bennett is as exposed as any celebrity of his stature has ever been. When he sings, his heart comes along with his voice. When he paints - which he also does professionally - his soul exposes itself in every brush stroke.

Tony Bennett's duet albums, with contemporary stars like Lady Gaga and Michael Buble, have been huge, but the duets he does alone, when his inner self harmonizes with the Tony Bennett you see on stage, those are the duets that make him the greatest jazz vocalist of all time, except for - as he would agree with Louis Armstrong - Ella Fitzgerald.

(Image credit: Tony Bennett)

"I've never worked a day in my life," Tony Bennett says. Painting and singing aren't work for him. They are gifts.

He wakes up every morning eager to start painting and thinking about what he can discover musically that day. It's remarkable that, at 87 and still performing regularly, his enthusiasm remains high. He does it by staying true to his roots, even finding his way back after becoming "lost" at midlife.

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Tony Bennett, From Astoria, Queens

Tony Bennett Not far from where I live, on a block I drive by, you can find the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts - in Astoria, Queens, the New York neighborhood where Tony Bennett grew up. A close look will tell you something about what makes Bennett so great - as a man first and as a performer because of it.

The school was founded by Bennett with his wife Susan, a former school teacher, to fulfill his desire to give back to the community that nurtured him. But instead of naming it after himself, he named it after his mentor, Frank Sinatra, the man who did so much to help him reach the top of his profession and stay there.

Ten years his senior and a huge star himself, Sinatra encouraged Bennett personally as well as professionally, all of it with unselfish generosity. In spite of the Chairman of the Board's reputation for toughness, Bennett sets the record straight, telling us that Sinatra was - privately - an exceptionally kind friend and teacher. With this school, he also pays back a debt in kind.

Growing up in Astoria gave Bennett a sense of the world as a place of diversity where strivers had a chance to move up through hard work and determination. From his father, who died when Bennett was only ten, he learned about compassion and human decency. His mother, widowed with three children but the family breadwinner before that because of her husband's illness, taught him the importance of working hard and doing work the right way.

In his book, Life Is A Gift: The Zen of Bennett, he tells about his mother's job as a seamstress at a penny per dress. She brought dresses home and worked at night as she fought to provide food and shelter. But she taught an additional crucial lesson. Even in poverty, she would not turn in a dress if its quality was substandard, no matter how much she needed the income.

In a poor immigrant family, Tony Bennett learned the values that inform his character as a man today. Remarkably, you never hear childhood stories about blaming or about being treated unfairly. All you hear is the determination to do the best you can with the gifts you've been given. "Life," as he writes in his memoir, "is a gift."

(Image credit: Tony Bennett 2012)

A Long Fall From Top To Bottom

Tony Bennett's Downfall

Tony Bennett One thing convincing me that Tony Bennett's greatest blessing is his natural solo duet is the honesty with which he shares his life's lessons. This honesty is in his songs. He explains that a secret to his longevity as a performer is that he always sings with genuine feelings that match the emotional intent of the music. He's always inside out.

But what he shares about his life off stage is so direct and honest, the trust you feel only better informs the nature of his music.

After holding onto his popularity longer than most jazz artists as rock 'n' roll overtook the popular stage, Bennett's career and life spiraled downward from the mid-1960s on through the 1970s. Strong armed by Columbia's Clive Davis to drop the standards that had made him famous and put out records with more contemporary material, he complied with two awful sets that included songs just right for groups like the Beatles, but not for Tony Bennett.

Closing in on is fiftieth birthday, it seemed Tony Bennett no longer belonged anywhere but as a relic in Las Vegas.

By the mid-1970s, he was without a recording contract. The IRS was after him for back taxes after his first wife divorced him on grounds of adultery. His popularity at its lowest point since before his first hit record in 1951, Tony Bennett was a middle aged man on his way to desperation. To top it off, he'd become addicted to drugs, and his second marriage was already in trouble.

Bennett readily admits doing many foolish things, but it wasn't until he woke up one day in a bathtub, having overdosed on cocaine, that he was shocked enough to save himself. He called his sons, Danny and Dae, and asked for their help. "I'm lost," he told them simply. Then, the core family values kicked in.

Photo Credit: Young Tony Bennett

Best Jazz Singer Back On Top

Tony Bennett Danny Bennett turned out to be a brilliant strategist with a finely tuned intuition about what audiences across all age groups appreciate. Soon after moving his father back to New York, Danny began scheduling him for appearances at campuses and small theaters where he stood a better chance of connecting intimately with a fan base and where he could shake a plastic Vegas image.

Believing not only in his father's talents but also in the jazz standards that he performed, Danny never asked him to change what he did on state. His beliefs were right. By 1988, Bennett - now sixty-two years old - signed a new contract with Columbia Records and was reunited with his best music director and accompanist, Ralph Sharon.

Without changing his style in any way or his song selection, Danny raised his father's profile by getting him appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman as well as on Conan O'Brien's program that followed. A video of Steppin' Out, from a Fred Astaire tribute album of the same name, exposed him to his youngest audiences ever on MTV.

The big payoff came when he got his turn on the popular MTV Unplugged series. Telling viewers he'd always been unplugged, Bennett invited Elvis Costello and k.d. lang to join him. A recording from the show went platinum and was the Grammy winner for Album of the Year in 1994. That was the year Tony Bennett celebrated his sixty-eighth birthday, and he has been on top ever since.

Photo Credit: Tony Bennett on Stage

Tony Bennett Duets

A Man Who Sings Inside Out

Tony Bennett 2013 Several factors contribute to the beauty and longevity of Tony Bennett's voice. In performance, he gained from early support and tutoring from Pearl Bailey, whose insistence got him appearances where she headlined, as well as Duke Ellington and Bill "Count" Basie, both of him shared insights and guided him. From the start of his career, Bennett seemed to attract the classiest support in town.

No discounting the fact that nature played a big role in giving him extraordinary vocal skills, but the care and development of it all is Tony Bennett's alone. It starts with song selection. He has stuck with the classics of jazz for sixty years. Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and others who pioneered jazz composition have never left his playlist.

In 1962, he released (interestingly as a "B" side on the record) what's considered his signature song, I Left My Heart In San Francisco, written by George Corey and Douglas Cross. Over fifty years later and after countless performances, he still sings it with warmth and feeling. Asked if he ever tires of it, he asks, "Do you ever tire of making love?"

Therein lies the secret to Tony Bennett as an inside out artist who duets with his own inner self. He is able to repeat himself without being indifferent, because he always sings from his deepest heart. There's a communion there that is always fresh and genuine. He considers singing to be an act much like making love to a true love. It never wears out.

What's kept his voice strong more than seventy years after he started out as a singing waiter in New York is his commitment to style. A bel canto artist, he does scales and exercises every day. In concert, he usually picks at least one song to sing with the microphone turned off, just to show off his gift and how well it's been handled.

An important factor in the development of his bel canto style has been his learning to handle lyrics in the way instrumentalists handle notes. His voice rides through the notes much like Bill Evans did with the keys on his piano.

Photo credit: Tony Bennett 2013

Tony Bennett, Great Jazz Vocalist

Man of Character and Humanity

Tony Bennetts Footprints, Civil Rights Walk of Fame You might say that his skills as a visual artist help form the duet that is Tony Bennett, helping him find more of the nonverbal depths in himself that he mines when he sings. Using his birth name, Antonio Benedetto or just Benedetto, he isn't just a hobbyist, but a serious painter who has received widespread recognition. He has pursued his career as a painter in parallel with his music, achieving exceptional results.

Beyond the glitter, Bennett performs as well as contributes in other ways to worthy causes he is sometimes called Tony Benefit. Following his opening of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, he and Susan have worked to help seventeen more school across the country, for example, but it's his work for humanitarian and civil rights causes for which he will be most remembered.

Scarred by his service in World War II and, now, a pacifist who says that "War is the lowest form of human behavior," he was busted and abused by a superior officer in the, then, still segregated armed forces in Europe for opening befriending another soldier, a buddy he recognized from home who just happened to be African-American. Growing up in the melting pot of Astoria, Queens, it didn't occur to him that anyone would consider anyone else objectionable based on skin color.

He witnessed the racism that kept his friends Nat King Cole and Bill Basie from sharing the limelight with him offstage, and it made him sick. Early on, at the risk of his career, Bennett became active in the civil rights movement, joining Dr. Martin Luther King in the legendary March on Selma in 1965.

Having received 17 Grammy's and numerous other music awards, Tony Bennett may also be equally proud to be a member of the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame and, also in 2006, the recipient of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees Humanitarian Award.

As you can see, there's more to Tony Bennett than meets the eye, much more, in that invisible duet we can only hope continues in harmony for many years ahead.

(Photo credit: Tony Bennett's Footprints at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame)

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