The torch bearer

Interview: John Walsh meets Tony Bennett
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The Independent Online
Talking to Tony Bennett is like tuning in to some gossipy database or website of 20th century showbiz. The data you pick up isn't necessarily very riveting, instructive or insightful, but the quality of the personnel in these little stories is what counts. Every few minutes he hits you with another volley of sacra conversazione.

"Frank Sinatra told me once that the funniest thing he ever saw in his life was Jimmy Durante in a show called Jumbo in a small theatre on Broadway, with a real elephant and the Keystone Cops..." "Recently Bob Hope, he's 93 now, said to me..." "Laurence Olivier used to say that Mickey Rooney was the best actor around. So did Marlon Brando..." "I had never met Gloria Swanson, but she called me from out of nowhere when I was on the Johnny Carson show, and said `You're in top shape, don't ever change'..." "I only met Frank Loesser once. I spent a great day with him. I think Guys and Dolls is going to be one of the authentic classic operas in the States..." "George Burns once explained it to me this way..." "Judy Holiday, I just could not persuade her she could sing. Rex Harrison..."

A running theme in this flow of vaudevillean obiter dicta is the fun side of people whom time has consigned to Showbiz Hell. It is disconcerting to hear Bennett talk, for instance, about Judy Garland: "Everyone condemned her towards the end of her life, but I never met anyone who was more humorous, more soulful and more wonderful than Judy at the end. She was having so much fun. She'd meet someone and she'd have that glint in her eye and she'd say, `I played that guy just like in the movies...'". Speaking of his new CD, Tony Bennett on Holiday, a 21-song tribute to Billie Holiday, the blues singer who took to heroin and died at 44, her heart serially broken, Bennett performs a similar act of reclamation: "There were many years when she was very healthy, she wasn't on drugs, she sang very optimistically and hopefully, she sang happy songs. And I chose mostly those for the new record. But when I hear Billie on the radio, it's not her old records they're playing, but her later records, where she's really tragic. Same with Piaf. They don't play any of her early work..."

The concept that there might once have been an innocent Edith Piaf, a happy Holiday or an emotionally secure Garland seems so alien as to suggest that Tony Bennett lives in a universe that's parallel to ours but fogged- up by stardust and bluebirds. And there's a temptation to write off such reminiscences as part of his eezie-listenin', everyone-havin'-a-good-time schtick. But you have to give him the benefit of the doubt because he has known everyone on the popular music scene, from Jolson and Crosby to Sondheim and McCartney, every musician from Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis. His present-day address-book must be an awesome sight, given the 70-year-old's collaborations with Elvis Costello, kd lang, Sting, Madonna and a number of decidedly non-eezie-listenin' American bands such as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Even the people who write off his resurrection as some kind of postmodernist jape can't argue with the fact that he's had five Grammy awards in the past four years, and his tribute albums (Steppin' Out for Fred Astaire, Perfectly Frank for Sinatra, now Billie Holiday) sell as well as he ever did in the pre-Beatles heyday of tuxedoed schmaltz. Even if, like me, you always regarded with deep suspicion people who "phrased" rather than sang, and who snapped their fingers to display their familiarity with tempo, you have to tip your hat to a career that's lasted five decades.

In the flesh, Bennett is shorter than you'd expect, broader of face, more handsome (he has an absolutely killer grin) and considerably more intelligent and thoughtful than you'd bargained for. His conversation, name-drops apart, is peppered with Big Ideas lightly worn. He was just back from looking at the new flowers-in-vases paintings by David Hockney. Bennett is a friend of Hockney's, and a painter in his own right, and was fulsome in his praise of the flaxen Yorkshireman. "I think he's one of the great painters. I love his spirit. He's just got the whole essence of what an artist is about. He knows the whole history of art so well. He's learned about lighting - how the colours change and nuance at different times of the day. It's in those flower paintings, the beautiful understanding of colours and combinations. I don't know how anybody could dislike it. But the critics do, as they have done through the whole history of art."

Phew. What was the best technical advice Hockney had given him? "Oh - that Eastern perspective is better than Western. Western perspective always looks towards infinity, towards a God that's unattainable. It's all based on religion and war. Eastern perspective is about the fidelity of seeing, straight ahead and peripherally at the same time. It's more natural. It's saying that God is here, and here and here..."

A cynic might suspect that this lesson in aesthetics is a justification for Bennett's own mode of realist painting, a half-completed example of which lies on the table of his hotel suite: a rendering of the view from a window overlooking downtown Sao Paolo in Brazil, a symphony of right- angle thoroughfares and skyscrapers in muted blues and ochres. It's what keeps him sane, apparently, during his endless concert tours. "The painting keeps me down, you know? Entertaining is very gregarious, lots of people and autographs and parties. It's very calming to paint, but - talk about stage fright, I get paint fright. I have a white page to fill up and hope it works. You paint for four hours, and it feels like four minutes. It's a Zen attitude..."

On the new album, he sings a score of Billie Holiday classics ("Willow Weep for Me", "Good Morning Heartache", "My Old Flame"), culminating in a duet on the gorgeous "God Bless the Child", a studio-constructed number with Bennett alternating lines with Holiday's recorded voice and finally joining her, triumphantly and movingly, at the climax. Had he ever met her?

"Only one time, in Philadelphia, about 1952. She'd been busted in New York City and not allowed to work in cabarets, but she could work Carnegie Hall. It was kinda ironic. She was so beautiful." Did he speak to her? "Only because she saw me gawking at her. She said, `Get me a drink' and gave me some money and I bought her a drink and never got over it." What was so special about her?

"She was the goddess of singers as far as musicians of any real worth were concerned. Art Tatum, Count Basie, Joe Jones, Lester Young - they all wanted to play their instruments the way she sang."

Bennett, by contrast, always wanted to sing like he was playing an instrument. Unlike Sinatra, in whose cool penumbra he has always lurked, or Crosby who used to describe himself as "just a guy who could carry a tune", Bennett was never concerned to sing a straight melody. "My singing teacher was always telling me to sing like the musicians. She said, if you sing like one of the other singers, you'll just be one of the chorus. So I took from Stan Getz because of his warm honey sound, and Art Tatum, who could make a whole performance out of a simple popular song. In those days, singers were taught to sing in a long straight line so everybody could dance to it. I was the first dramatic singer, who'd sing out of tempo, in tempo, come in on the beat, then off it. In those days it was quite shocking to sing like that."

Bing Crosby was his biggest influence. The prototypical exponent of the less-is-more musical gospel. "It's the art of intimate singing. Before the microphone, you had to be able to hit the back of the hall, like Ethel Merman or Al Jolson. It's too hot for recordings. The more intimate it is, the more you can communicate. Suddenly you're in someone's living room and it's very calm and relaxing. Crosby gave us all a great living, because he told us all how to relax. We've all taken from him. All the top singers - Dean Martin and Perry Como and Sinatra and myself."

He started out as Antonio Dominick Benedetto, born in 1926 to an Italian emigre family in Astoria in the Queens district of New York. Bennett's father died when Antonio was 10. His mother, a seamstress, raised three children on a tiny income in the middle of the Depression. His first audience was an admiring family circle. "My aunts and uncles and cousins, they'd come over every Sunday and my brother and sister and myself would entertain them. I couldn't wait for the next weekend, to do something a little different when they'd take out the mandolins and guitars.

"I was very envious of my brother John. He sang at the Met [Metropolitan Opera House] when he was only 14. He was a tenor, "Little Caruso", and he had all the schooling. I'd envy his popularity within the family, so I started to imitate entertainers - Jolson, Crosby, Louis Armstrong. I had an uncle who was a hoofer in vaudeville. He'd do a little tap dance as Bing was singing. That was my real influence."

After the war, Bennett did his singing apprenticeship in the bars of Greenwich Village, where he was discovered by Bob Hope (who told him to anglicize his name). Investigating these early days plunges you into a maelstrom of trauma and idealism, when Bennett encountered, first racism, then organised crime. Of the first he is happy to speak, telling his oft- told tale of being thrown out of the infantry because he entertained a black friend to Thanksgiving dinner in the bombed-out town of Mannheim in Germany; Bennett was sent off on "Graves Registration" digging bodies out of mass Nazi execution sites, as a punishment. Later, "I was the first one to put a black man up in the Roosevelt Hotel in Louisiana." His voice trembles when he remembers how a white entrepreneur came up and spat in his face for putting a black musician on a New Orleans stage. "Those two incidents, just two, changed my spirit about things. It was so inhuman, so ignorant." He became thereafter a devoted adherent to civil rights causes and a campaign singer for Martin Luther King.

He builds up a fine head of steam, too, about the evidence of human greed that infects the music industry - how, in his day, "You started out, you were able to go from one town to another and you were allowed to get lousy before you got good, and after 10 years you became a performer. Today, there's so many accountants, they're not nice to young performers. They shoot them up, tell them they're gonna be bigger than the Beatles. And the majority just crash. I heard of a group" - his eyes widened in wonderment - "that made $500m and went bankrupt. I mean, how do you spend $500m?"

Bennett also has no sympathy, the odd tune apart, for the whole rock 'n' roll circus that scuppered the art of the crooner for two generations. "Jimmy Durante gave me the best answer. I asked him what he thought of rock 'n' roll and he said, `They play three chords and two of them are wrong.'" He groans. His feelings about the infantilism of modern instrumentation clearly lie too deep for words.

I ask him: what's the big secret about being a torch singer, about being part of that curious platoon of lazy chanteurs who sent post-war middle America looking for a Paradise of golf, nostalgia and poolside highballs?

"It's storytelling with music. You have to search for songs that have that quality, that create images. Like in `I'll Be Seeing You' - `Cathedral bells were tolling/ Our hearts sang on/ Was it the spell of Paris/ Or the April dawn?'. As you sing it, you see these images. The audience react because it happened to them too, in their own way. You find songs that make them dream, just like you're dreaming as you're singing it."

The time-transcending old smoothie, who never wanted to be one of the chorus, hummed rapturously on.