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National Beat: My Interview With Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett at Exploring The Arts Dinner in 2007
Tony Bennett at Exploring The Arts Dinner in 2007
Photo courtesy of RPM Productions

By Nick McCabe – Front Row Photo
Nick.frontrowphoto@gmail.com

Tony Bennett is coming to The Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on August 9th for a one night performance in the Grand Theater. I was contacted about six weeks ago and asked if I’d be interested in doing an interview with him. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.

After several weeks of waiting I was invited to an undisclosed location close by to meet him. When I arrived I was taken to a beautiful deck in the rear of the home with a fantastic view. Mr. Bennett greeted me and offered me some brandy and a cigar. I don’t like brandy and I don’t smoke, but it was Tony Bennett, so I accepted. We sat next to a fire pit and chatted about nothing specific for about ten minutes, at which time he said, “Kid. I like you. You’re good people. Let’s do this interview!”

I sure wish it had happened that way, but it didn’t. I was just having a little fun, fantasizing about how I would have liked it to have unfolded. Below is the interview, which I did and it is 100% original and authentic. Enjoy!

NM: Reno is very excited about your upcoming show at the Grand Sierra Resort this August. What can you tell us about the show and what we will experience?

TONY BENNETT: I travel with my jazz quartet so every night is different since jazz musicians are so well trained that they are not afraid of being spontaneous so we can change things around right on stage during the show. I love the Great American Songbook as that was a golden era of master craftsmen writing music so I want to present the audience with the best popular standards I can find for them.

NM: In my opinion retiring from music is like retiring from eating. You just don’t do it, but ‘touring’ is a different thing all together. Constant travel, hotel rooms and living out of a suitcase (maybe a few) has got to be tough to deal with after all these years. How is touring these days? Especially compared to days gone by?

TONY BENNETT: I get asked often if I have plans to retire and I say, "Retire to what?." I am doing what I love most and I honestly feel like I have never worked a day in my life so I feel very lucky to be able to keep performing. Touring of course is much easier these days - I started out at the Paramount Theatre in New York City where you played seven shows a day so those early days gave me good training. Now I travel by plane so its much easier and I gave up the big entourage decades ago so we keep it very simple and easy.

NM: The list of accomplishments, accolades and charitable undertakings you are credited with is inspirational to say the least. More than would be thought possible for one person to achieve in a lifetime. Can you tell me what a couple (or few) of your proudest accomplishments are, even if they aren’t in the headlines?

TONY BENNETT: I would say most recently was having the opportunity to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City for my 85th birthday - that was a very special night for me that I will truly never forget. Also I remember right after I did the MTV Unplugged CD a father and son came backstage and they told me that listening to my music together was the first thing they could really agree upon in years - that meant a lot to me to have that impact. I have always deplored demographics and marketing that tries to tell the audience that this kind of music is just for your age group -- if music is good then its for everybody.

NM: I’ve read about 25 biographies of musicians and other people in the music business over the years. A consistency I find in all of their stories is the intervention of a person or persons in their lives, or an event that changes their direction, and a willingness to sacrifice security and comfort in the pursuit of their artistic goals. Did you have any similar experiences in your youth? When did you first feel that you could actually make a living as a performer? Who or what changed direction for you?

TONY BENNETT: Growing up during the Depression, like everyone else we didn't have a lot of money and my mom was widowed when I was ten so she was on her own taking care of me and my two siblings. My Italian-American family would come over every Sunday and we would have a big meal and then they would sit in a circle and my brother, sister and I would entertain them. My family was so supportive of me during those moments that it was at that point that I knew being a performer was what I was meant to be and I really never wavered from that since. Of course I had my scuffling years and my big break came when Pearl Bailey asked me to join her revue at the Greenwich Inn in New York City. Bob Hope came to see Pearlie Mae's show and got a kick out of me since I was the only white guy in the show and he asked me to join his show at the Paramount Theatre and that’s when things really got started for me.

NM: The world today is so much different from when you were coming up in the business and trying to make your mark. It’s not unusual for a very young performer to be thrust into the spotlight backed by big money and loaded down with huge opportunities and immense responsibilities. Some survive...some don’t. Personally I feel that too often corporate greed trumps artistic integrity, and the best interests of the artist are not properly considered. What are your thoughts on the current state of the music business in this regard?

TONY BENNETT: I agree that is can be very tough now on young performers. I was able to catch the tail end of vaudeville so there was a circuit you could perform in where you could "be bad before you got good." I remember Pearl Bailey saying to me that "I can start you out but it will take you ten years just to learn how to walk on a stage." Now, young performers are put on TV shows and big stadiums and are exposed to millions of people just at the start of their career so the pressure is enormous and if they don't hit it big right away then they are dropped and forgotten. There is too much emphasis on having commercial success and it sometimes can curtail an artist's creativity and there is not much emphasis anymore on career development.

NM: In the past few years there have been so many new opportunities for young performers. I’m only 59 and the landscape has changed immensely since I was a young musician. What thoughts would do you have on shows like The Voice, American Idol, and Americas Got Talent?

TONY BENNETT: Again I think this can be good as it does give young people a chance to be noticed but also there is the pressure of being on national television in front of millions of people internationally and they are being judged all the time not just on the show but also with all the internet reactions that happen and it can be a very tough thing for a young performer. We had talent shows when I first got started - in fact I did one with Rosemary Clooney and she won, rightly so and I came in second -- but it was nothing like the pressure young artists have on them today.

NM: Just like anybody else, you have had some highs and lows in life. But as I read what I could about your life in preparation for this opportunity, it appears to me that your highs and lows have been on a grander scale than the average Joe. From the loss of a parent early in life, to WWII experiences I’m sure you would rather forget, to a hugely successful music career followed by the British Invasion and Acid Rock years that weren’t kind to your genre of music... It’s easy to ‘sing’ during the good times, but how hard was it during the bad times to keep forging ahead with your career?

TONY BENNETT: Now I have the luxury of being in the business for over six decades and I have learned one thing for sure - stress is a killer to your health, your creativity - so I try to stay positive no matter what and believe me I made plenty of mistakes but looking back I learned from those mistakes as well.

NM: I also read that your sons were instrumental in helping to revive your career after the tough times of the 60’s and 70’s. As a father of two boys, that made me well up. You must be very proud and thankful. Are they still involved in your career on a regular basis?

TONY BENNETT: Yes, actually my whole family is involved which I just love as they are all so creative - my daughter Antonia tours on the road with me and my other daughter Johanna started a film festival for first time filmmakers that has gotten a great reaction. My son Danny is my manager and my other son Dae produces my records and even my granddaughter Kelsey takes photos when I am in the studio. I love that we are all connected to each other.

NM: What are your hopes for the future?

TONY BENNETT: No more war or violence on the planet.

On the lighter side…
NM: How is your Alec Baldwin impersonation coming along?

TONY BENNETT: I think you should ask him!

There you have it! Now would be a good time to check to see if there are any tickets still available for his August 9th show here in Reno. Click here to check availability.

Writers note: Mr Bennett's responses were submitted to me in writing. Considering that I chose not to modify the text in any way whatsoever and publish it exactly as I received it.