Sunday , January 22, 2012 - 5:21 AM
PASADENA, Calif. -- Singer Tony Bennett says he never tires of leaving his heart in San Francisco. Though he's sung before eight presidents, recorded scores of best-selling albums and bowed to seven command performances, Bennett says each song is still fresh every night.
"I'm surrounded by a small group; I have a piano, a guitar, a bass and a drum, that's how I work," he says in a small meeting room in a hotel here.
"But they're so skilled they all improvise, every one of them. So that every night -- no matter what I'm singing -- it feels like a new song, it's never the same song ... You just turn the phrases around a little, and it sounds like another kind of song. The audience doesn't realize it, but it's a new way of doing it each night."
Four generations have mellowed to the tunes of Tony Bennett, but all that could've failed had he not listened to some early advice from singer Pearl Bailey.
"She was one of the first people that started me when she saw me on TV when I was just starting," says Bennett, who's nattily dressed in a tailored black suit, red-and-navy silk tie and white dress shirt.
She said, "Now I gave you a big break, but look out for the helium in the brain, look out for that, because success -- a lot of things are going to happen and you'll get confused. And that happens to every performer.'ââââ"
At first Bennett didn't listen. "Instead of realizing how powerful that lesson was I took a little dive with all the assassinations that went on with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and all that and started taking drugs," he says.
Bennett's drug-of-choice was cocaine until a chance conversation with Woody Allen's manager changed all that.
"He told me he used to handle Lenny Bruce, the great (comic) philosopher who was also a heroin addict. I said, 'I knew Lenny. What did you think of him?' He said one sentence that changed my life. He said, 'He sinned against his talent.' And when I heard that sentence, I realized that that's what I was doing. And I stopped everything.
"There was no withdrawal. I just realized I was wrong doing that. And it really changed my life till now I'm at a stage of contentment and comfort and won't do anything foolish. I don't hide. I'm just happy to be doing what I'm doing and feel very normal about things."
Bennett's accomplishments will be heralded Friday when PBS' "Great Performances" presents "Tony Bennett: Duets II," which features him crooning in tandem with people like Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, Willie Nelson and Michael Buble.
In spite of his worldwide fame, Bennett has maintained the humility that began when he was born into an extended Italian family and lost his father at 10.
"My uncles and aunts and nephews and relatives, they were hard-working people and it was during the Depression, and they would make a circle around my brother, sister and myself and we would be their entertainment," he recalls.
"No one had any money ... and they felt for my mom raising three children and working for a penny a dress as a seamstress. Amazing. So they all fell for her. So they all would have so much fun with us as we were children, they would say, 'Look at Tony, he makes us laugh the way he does things.' Also they said, 'See the way he paints.' So right away -- I'll never forget this -- at a very early age I realized because I loved them so much for being nice to my mom that I said: 'This is who I am. They say I sing very good and paint' and it created a passion in me. And that passion has never gone away. With each year it's stronger. Even though I'm 85, it's stronger than when I first started. I never want to retire, you're just looking at a wall."
Bennett will not be looking at any walls soon. Married for five years to his third wife, Susan, they continue their mission to establish performing arts programs in public schools. They've covered 14 schools already and are planning more. This year Bennett, who's a respected painter, will take up sculpting for the first time and he intends to study the piano.
Like his aunts and uncles before him, he keeps his family close. He has two sons and two daughters. His son Danny serves as his manager and son Dae handles his recordings. His younger daughter, Antonia, is a singer who occasionally performs with her dad, and his granddaughter is a photographer.
And how does he keep the music playing? He remembers his mother, eking out a hardscrabble living. "Twice a day she'd take a dress and throw it over her shoulder and say, 'Don't let me work on a bad dress.' It taught me to never sing a bad song. If it's well written, I'll sing it," he says, hands in his lap.
"No matter what the fashion is -- rap or disco or whatever the fashion is -- I don't do that. I just sing quality songs that are well written and it created a catalog ... 74 albums from 1950 to now that just came out (as a boxed set) this year. And the New York Times write-up saying they don't think it'll ever happen again because there's not one bad side in all the albums. It worked. If you stay with quality it ends up working," he says.
But it's not just the quality, he says, it's the message. "Life is a gift, that's what I try to say to somebody with my songs. I sing love songs -- some are comedy, some are tragic -- but what I try to tell them is just be blessed with the fact that you're alive because that's a gift."
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