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50 Years of Grammys, Duets II, His Lady Gaga Portrait, Politics & More: A Conversation With Tony Bennett

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A Conversation With Tony Bennett

Mike Ragogna: Hello, Tony. How are you?

Tony Bennett: Fine, Mike, I'm fine. Thank you very much for calling.

MR: Thanks so much for your time. This is another great year for you as far as Grammy nominations, and it's also been 50 years since you won your first Grammy for "I Left My Heart In San Francisco." Time flies.

TB: (laughs) That's right. I'm so fortunate.

MR: I bet you can remember winning your first Grammy.

TB: I do remember it very well. Ever since then, we've received 15 Grammys.

MR: Plus a couple of Emmys and many others. You also received the Kennedy Center Honoree Award.

TB: Right, and we just finished doing a performance for the Queen of England last week.

MR: What was that like?

TB: Oh beautiful, it was my seventh one that I've done. The public has been beautiful to me over there in Britain.

MR: What were the songs that you sang?

TB: Well, we did a song by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, a song that Sinatra told me to sing. When he told you to do something, if you didn't do it, you had no idea how much trouble you could get into. (laughs) It was "How Do You Keep The Music Playing," written by Michel Legrand, and Alan & Marilyn Bergman.

MR: They're some of our greatest songwriters, aren't they.

TB: They're really all great. Of all of the current composers, they are the very best.

MR: I think Barbra Streisand released an album of just Bergman material right?

TB: That's right, all of those songs.

MR: Can we dive into your latest project, Duets II, which is up for one of the two Grammys you were nominated for this year.

TB: Yes.

MR: You recorded it with some amazing guest artists such as Lady Gaga. Your track together, "The Lady Is A Tramp," sounds like it was lots of fun to record.

TB: It was, she's quite a phenomenon. We have it all on film. Eventually, there are one or two big specials that we're putting together. They are going to be out early next year, like in February. It's just the most spectacular reaction. I've been fortunate ever since 1950. I've had million selling records, two or three of them every decade, but this is unbelievable. Here I am 85 years old, and it's bigger than ever. This album is selling more than any other album I've ever made. It hasn't even started yet, and it's only out a month and it's got one million, five hundred thousand already.

MR: Wow, and you've sold over fifty million albums worldwide.

TB: More than that, that happened a long time ago that quote. It's actually a lot more than that. Analog doesn't become obsolete, so it just stays popular and sells all of the time throughout the year.

MR: Tony, my theory is the reason you are selling all of these records is that people genuinely love you, and they really want that next record by you. You're a friend.

TB: Well, thank you very much. I feel that way about them. I was taught never to compromise and never to do a cheap song to just make a quick buck which will be forgotten in ten or twelve weeks. I've always done very good songs that last a long time and don't sound dated. It's finally paying off after all of these years. My catalog is selling so well at Columbia that the heads of Sony are saying that I'm the only one really selling records there.

MR: Legitimate record sales, imagine that.

TB: Right.

MR: On this Duets package, you have a couple of friends that returned from your first Duets album, one of them being k.d. lang. You guys recorded "Blue Velvet" this time out.

TB: Right.

MR: You guys are old pals, right?

TB: Really true pals, she's the most wonderful friend and I love the way she sings.

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MR: On the first Duets album, you both sang "Because Of You."

TB: We also did a separate duet album, just she and I alone together, and that was a wonderful album.

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MR: Another pal that returned is Michael Bublé. How's he doing these days?

TB: He's doing great, he's doing real fine, I'm so happy for him. He's a great performer, and he will be around for a long time. He's also singing the right music so that young people will get acquainted with a lot of good songs.

MR: Are you his mentor?

TB: That's what he's been saying, I'm very honored by that. I was always impressed with Sinatra, who was ten years older than I was, he was my master. Now Michael Bublé is saying he would like to be like me someday. It just shows you what a nice community the entertainment world is, that we appreciate one another and we help one another. So much so, my wife and I started a public school in my hometown of Astoria, Queens, which is twenty minutes from Manhattan. We call it The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. It gets kids ready for college and it's doing great. It went over so well that now we have fourteen other schools that we're servicing performing art programs too, in the public schools.

MR: Tony that's amazing, and that's really important because as the government is cutting back programs for the creative arts, it's beautiful that someone like you is so aware of that and are contributing.

TB: Right, yeah, we're going to try and do it around the whole country eventually. It's going so well we can't believe it. The students are showing up with such great artwork, I can't believe it.

MR: Nice. So you have an eBay auction involving a Lady Gaga portrait.

TB: It started and who knows where it's going to land. It's internationally being presented so that it's from all over the world. Whatever money we collect from the sketch of Lady Gaga that's in Vanity Fair magazine, whatever the amount, will go to the wonderful foundation for getting the children to stop bullying.

MR: That topic is finally starting to get attention. In this auction, you're also giving away the print of your watercolor "Gondola Venice."

TB: Right.

MR: So, let's get more into I want to get into your art that you proudly sign as "Benedetto," of course.

TB: That's my family name. Benedetto translated into English means "the blessed one." Believe me, the way the public has been treating me through the years, I feel quite blessed. I'm very honored that the public has never let me down and has enjoyed my work and I love them for it. I have no desire to ever retire, I just feel like I have to keep learning. As long as the audiences are as sold out as they are and are giving me such great ovations, I'm going to just keep going.

MR: Tony, you've been blessed in many ways, and not only with an incredible voice and sense of music, but also with the ability to create artwork as well.

TB: Thank you. Well, I still have a long way to go yet. It's very tough to top Leonardo da Vinci. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) On August 5th, you celebrated your 85th birthday. Your musical partners from Duets II wished you a happy birthday on camera. What was your reaction when you saw the piece?

TB: I just loved it, absolutely loved it. I just had the greatest birthday in my whole life. I did a benefit for the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan, and it was so magnificent. We had Aretha Franklin and Elton John sing with me, and it was a beautiful concert that I will never forget and I will never forget that night. It was the best birthday I have ever had.

MR: Are there any musical projects in your mind that you would like to get to?

TB: Yeah. This year, I'm studying piano and learning an awful lot about music by very good teachers.

MR: Very nice. Over the years, you've been working with your son Danny. It's all about family, extended or otherwise, huh.

TB: Well, you know, that's why I like Duets II and Duets I, which we did very well with. Now, with Duets II, we just really did the album with my own personal family. My granddaughter did all of the photography, my beautiful jazz quartet with Lee Musiker the music director and Harold Jones, his favorite drummer, Marshall Wood and Gray Sargent on guitar and bass--they are my great musicians. It was just family. My one son did all of my recordings. He's just a perfect engineer, who every jazz player hopes they could have record their music. He has such a great reputation with doing such a great job with the knobs. My son Danny is my manager and he's also doing a documentary right now on the Tony Bennett's Art of Zen thing that we're doing on the documentary.

MR: What's Tony Bennett's Art of Zen?

TB: Well, it's all about how I feel about life, that life is a gift, and different little philosophies come out throughout the documentary about how we should just adore being alive and appreciate every moment that we are alive, because it's such a great gift in this world to be alive on this planet.

MR: Beautifully said, Tony. Since you're contributing to the culture with The Frank Sinatra School Of The Arts and other schools' programs, it seems you would be a great person to ask what advice you have for new artists.

TB: Well, what I found out with Duets II, which was six years later than Duets, all of the artists are coming out of art schools--Berklee College in Boston or Juilliard in New York, and Lady Gaga is from NYU. NYU is just a great college and she has a great education. When Rosemary Clooney and I first started, we were just amateurs, and we got a million selling records. Soon enough, some of the old masters like George Burns and Jack Benny told us, "Children, you're doing very well, but just know that it's going to take you six years to learn how to perform to an audience in a competent way." Sure enough, it took that long. With the new students, what I love is that they're learning from school just what to do. I couldn't believe how professional John Mayer, Michael Bublé, k.d. lang, and all of these artists that are on here are; they are all so educated now, professional, and appreciate that they are going over well. They learn that from schools, a performing arts school. That's our dream. My wife and I are in fourteen different schools, but we would like to make it happen throughout the country. So, even if they don't go into the arts, they will understand art and have a taste about the quality of things.

MR: I think John Mayer is a great example of what you're saying.

TB: He's very talented, he's a great blues singer.

MR: Yeah, I think he really feels it. And he's a great songwriter as well.

TB: Absolutely.

MR: And he plays guitar so well, it's like he's featured on the cover of Musician Magazine every other month.

TB: He deserves it, he's a really talented guy and a wonderful person, and in one of the interviews that will be shown eventually in documentary form, I said in the interview, "Will you tell this guy John Mayer to go into the movies? He's a very handsome guy, but he's a very talented person too. He will become a very famous movie star.

MR: Cool. A friend of mine, Dennis Raimondi, is a big fan, and he wanted me to ask you about your letter from Martin Luther King.

TB: Well, Harry Belafonte was a really good friend of mine when he told me what was going on in Selma and the trouble that they were having. The amount of bigotry was so intense and when he told me some of the personal details that I don't want to mention on the air about what they did to some of the African Americans, I went down there and went down to march with Martin Luther King. It really changed everybody's concept about the elimination of bigotry, not only for African Americans, for every nationality. For one reason or another, we live in a country that's so magnificent. It's the only country that allows every religion and every nationality to come into the country, and we have to realize that we should respect everybody's heritage and everybody's religion, be respectful of someone whether they are Polish or Italian or someone that's British. We should really respect that we live in a country with so many different creative things that they've created. They've all created and left something to the planet, it's so great to have it in one country. It's so great to have all of the different nationalities and all of the different religions together. Rather than each country having one philosophy, we have fifty different philosophies with different countries and the different religions. So, we should respect the best of everybody.

MR: Do you think we've made progress from those days till now?

TB: Oh yes, an awful lot, but it still needs a lot more. We should realize how much of a gift it is to be born in the United States, and to think of helping our fellow citizens. To me, everybody should have a job in the United States.

MR: Yeah, well I wasn't going to go near a subject like that today, but is there any advice you would have for our politicians these days?

TB: Well, there is a lot of greed, not just from politicians but from a lot of businessmen. We have to start giving instead of just taking. We have to split it in half right now, everybody should help every other American out.

MR: Back in the day, how did your contemporaries feel about your participating in the march, like did Frank Sinatra say anything about it to you?

TB: He was all for it, he was a good friend of helping out the whole movement also.

MR: Where would you ideally like to see America go in the future?

TB: That's a tough question, because in my life, I never compromise, I only do things of quality. I don't do cheap songs that might be a big hit or will be forgotten. I just wish that every industry would stay away from anything obsolescent just to make a quick dollar. We have just nothing but junkyards all over America. We have to get back to doing things of quality. If we do that, then the whole country economically will go to the top and everybody in the world would want to buy American products. I would like to see any of the large companies to bring back and not go to different countries to get cheap employment. I would like to see it happen right in the United States. I think if you're an American citizen, everybody should have a job.

MR: It doesn't seem so far-fetched, does it.

TB: It isn't.

MR: And as we spoke about earlier regarding the arts in schools, you are definitely making an impact on the culture beyond just talking.

TB: Thank you, but I'm just one person. I can't tell somebody else to do what I'm doing, but I just see that we should get back to doing things of quality and we will get back to the top again so quickly you won't believe it.

MR: I wanted to bring up your latest Christmas collection.

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TB: In the last 23 years, I've done the Christmas card for the Cancer Society, every year it becomes the number one Christmas album. They will sell all different kinds of cards, but mine goes to the top right away because I'm a celebrity. So, they easily buy my Christmas cards that I paint every year. It's a joy to know that it's going to the Cancer Society.

MR: Tony, what songs will you be singing around the piano during the holidays?

TB: Well, "I'll Be Home For Christmas," and I will be. (laughs) I will be home with my family and it will be a special year because of their involvement with me with my last album. We're all so happy to be with one another.

MR: Do you have any Christmas wishes for everyone?

TB: I wish them all good feelings and a good time for when they get back and hug their families and be good to one another. I wish them well and they deserve it.

MR: If Frank Sinatra was looking at you from wherever he is right now, would he be proud?

TB: Very proud, yeah. He changed my life because I was ten years younger, and he called me the best singer he ever heard. Right until the day he died, he was wonderful to me. We miss him like crazy, but he's still being played all over the radio. Everybody still sees the great films that he's made. He will never be forgotten.

MR: And neither will you, sir. You know, I grew up on your music. My mother used to play your records all the time, and even as a kid, I loved your music. To this day, my favorite recording by you is "Once Upon A Time."

TB: Oh, I love that song, you have good taste. That's a great song.

MR: Thanks, Tony. Of course, I also love "I Left My Heart In San Francisco."

TB: I do too.

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MR: Was your heart really ever left in San Francisco?

TB: It was and it's still there.

MR: Tony, I really appreciate you spending time with me today, you're beautiful. Thank you so much.

TB: You have a happy Christmas.

MR: Happy Christmas to you too, Tony.

Transcribed By Theo Shier