HE has been crooning for 60 years, which means he predates rock ‘n’ roll. So what did Tony Bennett think when Elvis et al., came along in the mid-fifties?
He takes while getting there but the punchline is a surprise.
“Well, there was a gentleman by the name of Epstein who wrote a beautiful book eulogising Fred Astaire,” says Bennett.
“Of course he was a dancer but he introduced so many great songs from the American songbook. Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter would not make a move unless Fred Astaire introduced their songs.
“Mr Epstein said in this book that when Elvis Presley became famous good music died.”
He’s chuckling now.
“I think that’s pretty accurate,” he adds.
Eh!? Do you?
But that’s dismissing the past 55 years of popular music.
“I don’t like it. I’ve always kept the integrity. I don’t like to do something that’s just slam bang noise. People say I’m not with it if I don’t start screaming but I don’t scream, I sing properly.”
He may not have enjoyed his music but Bennett did like Elvis.
“I got along well with him. He was a very nice person and so handsome. I met him at Paramount Studios when he was in real top shape and he looked gorgeous. And he was a very genuine person.”
Did you tell him you didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll?
“I didn’t even bring it up,” he laughs.
Tony Bennett is the son of a grocer, born Anthony Dominick Benedetto 83 years ago next month, in Queens, New York.
“It was tough, “ he says.
“We grew up during the depression. My father died when I was ten and my mother had my brother, my sister and myself to raise. She’d work for one penny a dress. We were barely existing. It was unbelievable. I felt so bad for my mom who I loved so much. I vowed to go in to show business and somehow become famous enough to afford to buy her a home in the country. And that happened. Toward the end of her life she had a little peace in the country.”
As a teenager he’d sing while waiting tables, then performed with military bands throughout his overseas army duty during World War II.
The big break came in 1949 when Bob Hope noticed him singing in a Greenwich Village nightclub.
“He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on kid, you’re going to come to Paramount and sing with me.”
It was Hope who’d rename him.
“He didn’t care for my stage name (Joe Bari) and asked me what my real name was. He said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.’”
Bennett’s initial fame came via a string of Columbia singles in the early 1950s, including chart-toppers Because of You, Rags To Riches and Cold, Cold Heart.
He has since sold millions of records, sold out concerts worldwide and won fifteen Grammy Awards.
His latest album, Tony Bennett Sings The Ultimate American Songbook: Vol. 1, is the first of a series in which he has compiled some of his favourite recordings of songs by US songwriters.
“I learned from Sinatra to always do good songs. Don’t do any cheap songs. Don’t look down at the audience like they’re just imbeciles. So, I’ve always had the philosophy of giving them the best songs that were ever written. I’ve always delved in to the great American songbook.
“Columbia now want me to put out an album every year from the great American songbook.”
He adds: “In the United States we have a tradition like the French had with the Impresisonsits, with Ravel and Debussy, and in the painting world you had Monet and Van Gogh. In my country we had George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, a renaissance period during the twenties, thirties and forties which was tremendous and the songs will never die.”
What about us Brits, can’t we write a song?. What about The Beatles?
“Oh yeah, Paul McCartney is doing fantastic, he’s a great friend of mine. There’s the fella who wrote The Very Thought of You and Cherokee in the twenties and thirties, I forget his name (Ray Noble) but he was from Britain and wrote those beautiful songs. And, of course, there was Noel Coward.”
There are photographs and reviews in the Post files from previous visits he’s made to Nottingham. One headline, from a show review in 1986, reads ‘Bennett’s still on song after 37 years.’
“(Laughs) And now that’s 60 years.”
“Isn’t that wonderful that I’ve been playing there so many years? I love it.”
And no-one else has lasted so long.
“I don’t think anyone has. I’m just so fortunate, I’m in very good health and I’m completely active. It’s a blessing. I like to entertain people and make them feel good. It’s such a nice occupation.”
Retirement isn’t an option.
“I learned from the old masters. The Charlie Chaplins that I had read about, the people I met like Jack Benny and George Burns, the old timers. Their philosophy was, as long as the audiences are coming, never retire.”
Doesn’t the travelling get on his nerves?
“Not all all. Years ago it was very tough but I was young enough to take it. Now I fly on private planes and it’s very comfortable for my musicians and myself. We get right to whatever city we’re going to. It saves hours and the service is great.”
Frank Sinatra famously said of Tony Bennett: “he’s the best in the business.”
Quips Bennett: “What did he know?”
“His audiences came to my shows to find out why he liked me and that created full houses for me. He changed my life. And he was wonderful to me until the day he died. His last interview was with the New Yorker magazine and the woman said to him ‘When we make love we listen to your records, who do you listen to?’ and he said ‘Benedetto’”
He adds: “He was the sort of guy who, if he liked you, he always liked you, and if he didn’t, he’d tell everybody he didn’t like you,” he laughs.
“He was certainly one of a kind.”
Let’s have a Sinatra story...
“There was one time when Judy Garland was in trouble. She was at a hotel. I was playing the Waldorf Astoria and it was my opening night when Judy Garland’s son calls me up saying ‘my mother’s being beaten up’. My ex-wife said ‘call Frank’ who was in Florida finishing up a movie. So I called and said Judy Garland’s being beaten up and I’m about to walk on stage, I can’t leave the theatre. Maybe you could help her out. He said ‘I’ll get back to you’. 15 minutes later Judy Garland called me and said ‘I asked for help, now I have four lawyers in my apartment and 300 policemen down in the street.’”
He adds laughing: “Then Sinatra called me up and said ‘is that all right for you kid?’”
Who: Tony Bennett
Where: Royal Concert Hall
When: Tuesday, 8pm
Tickets: £60, £46, £39, 0115 989 5555