Swinging his praises

When everyone was listening to Sinatra, Ol' Blue Eyes himself was listening to the velvet-voiced Tony Bennett, who tells Anthony Quinn how he is keeping the timeless art of crooning alive

In front of a full house at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's South Bank, Tony Bennett croons in that famous velvety tone, "Everyone loves a winner/ But nobody loved me." "We do," protests someone from the stalls, and it's true: you can feel a current of affectionate goodwill surging through the auditorium. Contained within it is a recognition that Bennett is the last link to a bygone age of supper-clubs, snap-brim hats and songs that your mother, or even your grandmother, used to hum along to. With Sinatra gone, it seemed things could never be the same again, yet his friend and sometime protégé has kept the flame alive. Just to watch him do a soft-shoe shuffle during "Luck Be a Lady" was proof enough: Bennett is still swinging.

In front of a full house at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's South Bank, Tony Bennett croons in that famous velvety tone, "Everyone loves a winner/ But nobody loved me." "We do," protests someone from the stalls, and it's true: you can feel a current of affectionate goodwill surging through the auditorium. Contained within it is a recognition that Bennett is the last link to a bygone age of supper-clubs, snap-brim hats and songs that your mother, or even your grandmother, used to hum along to. With Sinatra gone, it seemed things could never be the same again, yet his friend and sometime protégé has kept the flame alive. Just to watch him do a soft-shoe shuffle during "Luck Be a Lady" was proof enough: Bennett is still swinging.

Not bad for a man who turned 78 this year. When I meet him in his suite at the Dorchester the next day, his voice sounds a little frayed, but he's as twinkly as his reputation promised; companionably offering a seat on the sofa next to him instead of a formal eye-to-eye across the table. Born in Queens, New York, Anthony Dominic Benedetto attended the High School of Industrial Art before being drafted to serve in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Unlike soldiers-of-future conflicts, Bennett's generation was supported by the GI Bill of Rights on their return - "they really treated the soldiers great after they came back home," he says.

Bennett chose to pursue music, and was coached by some of the best teachers in New York, including Mimi Speer. From her brownstone window on 52nd Street he could see the great names on the awnings across the way: "Art Tatum, Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday. Mimi taught me, 'Don't imitate singers - you'll just end up one of the chorus. Imitate the musicians'. This was revolutionary to me at the time."

From Tatum he learned how to change tempos, and from Stan Getz he copied "that nice honey sound". The Bennett style was born. He began paying his dues at the clubs, where Bob Hope would spot and promote him, advising him along the way to shorten his name - otherwise it wouldn't fit on the marquee.

But it was his friendship with Sinatra that launched him into the big league. He recalls the first time he met Ol' Blue Eyes at the Paramount Theatre: "He was very nice to me when I got started. I told him I was very nervous about this TV show I was to sing on, and he said, 'Don't worry about that. If you're frightened, then the audience is gonna sense it, and they'll encourage you'. And that really did the trick." Later, Sinatra would cite Bennett as his favourite singer and would keep doing so till the end. "I remember he was interviewed late in life by New York Magazine," Bennett smiles fondly, "and the interviewer said, 'Everyone listens to you. Who do you listen to?' And he just said, 'Benedetto'."

Sinatra was also famous for not liking people. "He was very misunderstood," Bennett says, without irritation. "He just believed in loyalty. If you did him in... well, you were never allowed to mention anyone who did him in. He'd just explode." Bennett managed to avoid that particular blast area, probably through his own amiability as much as his good sense, though he tells a story about how he came close. A New York disc jockey had gone on air criticising Sinatra's Trilogy album, and a furious Sinatra had him fired. The DJ's wife called up Bennett and asked him to intercede, which he did via an interview in The Wall Street Journal. "That was the only time I risked my relationship with him", he says. "It was the right thing to do and the guy got his job back."

To celebrate half a century in showbiz, his record label has just released Fifty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, as well as his new CD, The Art of Romance. At the RFH, the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for "I Left My Heart in San Francisco", which, first released in 1962, became his signature tune almost by accident. "It was actually a B-side. I'd chosen "Once upon a Time" for the A-side of the new single, and was working like hell to get it known. Three months later, Columbia came back to me and said I was working the wrong one - it was the B-side everyone was playing." Bennett never lived in San Francisco, though I wonder if, in the words of the song, he's ever been "terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan". He's certainly rueful about his divorce. "Being on the road and making stupid mistakes as a young man, it was disastrous for me," he says, "but, in truth, when you hit the bottom it's amazing what you can learn." He recalls being alone in a hotel one Christmas Eve and hearing Duke Ellington perform in a church next door. Next thing he knows, there's music outside his room. "I opened the door," he recalls, "and a chorus was singing 'On a Clear Day' to me - they'd been sent up to my room by Duke Ellington and his drummer, Louis. I never forgot it."

His energy is remarkable. He's off to Oslo the weekend after we meet, to join Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey at the Nobel prize gala, where he plans to sing "If I Ruled the World", just as he did in a cameo in the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty. Does he ever get tired of performing? "No. I've been fortunate in always knowing what I wanted to do. The late Joe Williams, a great singer with Count Basie, once said to me, 'It's not that you want to sing - you have to sing'." He also has to paint, it seems, if the easel by the window is anything to go by. He has enjoyed a second career from it. "I like having two things to do," he says. "As soon as you get burned-out from singing, you can go to your painting. And it always feels new when you go back to either one of them."

I'm glad we get on to painting, because when I mention that I'm about to visit the new, redesigned MoMA in New York, he reaches into his pocket. "I got something for you," he says. "I'm gonna name-drop like you've never heard in your life", and he produces the business card of Justin A Rockefeller, the grandson of David and head honcho at the museum. "On a Tuesday, it's closed. He told me to let him know if someone wanted to visit out of hours." You know, I might just get in touch with Rockefeller - not because I want to avoid the queues or the entry fee of $20, or even because I'll get a personal tour of the new building. I'll get in touch because I can then say: "Tony Bennett told me to give you a call". Now that's name-dropping.

'The Art of Romance' is out now on Sony

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital