Tony Bennett: You Ask The Questions

You've been famous for so long, can you remember what it's like to be an ordinary person? And are you ever tempted to enter politics?
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The Independent Online

Tony Bennett, 78, was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Astoria, New York. In 1950 he successfully auditioned for Columbia Records, and a year later topped the US chart with "Because of You" and "Cold, Cold Heart". To date he has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide and is best known for his song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". A keen painter, he sells his work internationally under his real name. He is also an active anti-racism campaigner and has received the Salute to Greatness Award from the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. He lives in New York.

You've sung a few songs about romance over the years. What do you think is the way to a woman's heart?
Bess Smith, Great Yarmouth

Love is the only thing that works. Even Kinsey finally arrived at that answer. Freud said it best: "If you have work and you have love, you don't need a psychiatrist."

If you started out now would you still change your name from the Italian?
Toby Baker, by e-mail

Well, I use my real name when I paint and I've got used to being called Tony Bennett when I sing. Bob Hope gave me that name after he spotted me in Greenwich Village. I was the only white person in an all-black show. He asked me what my name was and I said Anthony Dominick Benedetto. He said, "It's too long. Let's Americanise it." He obviously had no idea there would ever be a singer called Engelbert Humperdinck.

I know you've been involved in anti-racist campaigns for many years. Have you ever been tempted to run for office or go into politics in a more high-profile way?
Bob O'Neill, by e-mail

Not at all. It reminds me of Spencer Tracy when he said, "I don't care too much for my profession but at least I can look down on politicians." I'm very unpopular right now in my country because I'm a Democrat liberal. I grew up during the Depression and I've never got over it. I blamed it on the conservatives, and their creation of a have and have-not world. I think the world is going the wrong way at the moment.

You seem such a relaxed guy. Do you ever lose your temper?
Harry Anderson, Carlisle

I'm in a wonderful state right now where I'm highly content with my life. I love what I do and it doesn't hurt anybody - that makes me very happy. I don't lose my temper any more. But, of course, when I was younger, I went through every stage of neurosis and sanity.

You're a great interpreter of standards. Who do you think is writing songs today that will become standards?
Stacey Finch, Birmingham

Stephen Sondheim, David Frishberg, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Johnny Mandel, and Jack Segal.

You've been famous for 50 years. Can you remember what it's like to be an ordinary person?
Karen Simon, London

I am an ordinary person. Many years ago, when I was performing in Britain, I took a train from Birmingham to London. On the way, I read an interview in The Times with Alec Guinness and he said something, which has stayed with me. He said that when he was on stage, he was a star but when he was off stage, he became an ordinary citizen. Why waste your energy, he said. Save your performance for the stage. I've disciplined myself to do that, and I really like my privacy, though I'm not angry if someone bothers me. I like what I do very much, and I do it because I love making people forget their problems for 90 minutes or so.

Do you ever go back to the neighbourhood where you grew up, Astoria, Queens?
Peter Clinton, by e-mail

Every day. The town where I grew up is 20 minutes from New York City. It's a little like Acton in London. The workers of New York are my favourite people: teachers, secretaries, poets, all very creative people. I play tennis in Astoria every day and I love being in that atmosphere. I have the same accent as they do and there are some wonderful Italian restaurants. My grandfather came from Italy with $35 in his pocket, but instead of moving to an Italian neighbourhood he moved to an area where there are and were many different religions and nationalities.

When you are travelling, what three things would you never be without?
Sarah Bates, by e-mail

My paint box is the only thing I would never be without. If I also have a DVD player, a CD player and a very good book, I'm home. I like to read all kinds of things. I'm trying to learn Shakespeare at the moment.

Do you do anything special to keep your voice in tip-top condition?
Phil Town, Lisbon

I'm disciplined and play tennis, jump rope, and eat very good food. It takes a lifetime to learn how to live good.

If you had to choose between spending the rest of your life singing or painting, which would it be?
Joy Rodd, Kingsacre

I can't do one without the other. I learnt that from Duke Ellington. I was on the road with him and he said to me, "Do two things instead of one because that way you'll never get burnt out." If you sing too much you get tired of it and, equally, if you paint too much you get burnt out. But by switching between the two, I'm on a perpetual vacation. When I've sung too much, I paint and when I've painted too much, I sing. I do both every day without fail.

What are your five favourite albums by other singers?
Larry Daniels, by e-mail

There are certain albums you can put on all day long. My favourites are probably Frank Sinatra, In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning; Billie Holiday, Lady in Satin; and anything by Louis Armstrong. I also listen to classical music, especially Delius, Ravel and Tchaikovsky.

Do you ever get sick of fans wanting you to sing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" for the 30,000th time? Come on, be honest.
Neil Hughes, Heanor, Derbys

No, I don't get tired of it. The public come to see me sing it and it's my joy to do so. The first time I sang that song was in a nightclub in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had no idea it would be so big but after I'd finished, the bartender said to me, "I don't mean to interrupt, but if you record that song, I'm going to be the first person to buy it." And it just took off.

What advice would you give to young people, like me, hoping to become famous?
Chloe Samuels, Cardiff

Young people want immediate reactions and complete acceptance straight away but it takes about 10 years before you become a mature, passionate artist. When I started, record companies would allow you to grow. What is tragic now is that producers make people famous quickly and then drop them. I think it's very cruel. I was kept on even if I had a semi-hit record. The best advice I can give you is that there's still nothing better than getting out in front of the public and learning. The public will tell you what they want to hear.

Tony Bennett plays the Royal Albert Hall (020-7589 8212) on 13 and 14 April