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

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