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09/27/2011 10:42 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2011

All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett

The following is an excerpt from All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett by David Evanier, the first biography of Bennett that has ever been published. The introduction provided here is an overview of his life, personality, philosophy, and career spanning 85 years and still counting.

Staying Real

In 1966 Tony Bennett was singing "Lost in the Stars" at the Hollywood Bowl with Count Basie's band. A shooting star shot through the sky right over his head, astounding even a jaded Hollywood audience. The next morning Bennett's phone rang. It was Ray Charles, whom Bennett had never met up to that time, calling from New York. Charles said, "Hey, Tony, how'd you do that, man?" and hung up.

In many ways Tony Bennett's life -- his real last name, Benedetto, means "blessed" in Italian -- has been a magical one, and some of his experiences over the years come as close to the celestial as a human life can aspire to. He has packed several lifetimes into his eighty-five years. The rebirth of Bennett generation after generation is amazing. He has never lost his sense of wonder, even as he has reached the pinnacle of a career that has kept him a huge star for more than sixty years, with sixty million record sales and fifteen Grammy Awards. His paintings have been accepted for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., including his oil paintings Central Park and God Is Love, a stunning portrait of Duke Ellington with twelve red roses. The roses have a story of their own. Ellington would send a dozen roses to Bennett every time he wrote a new song. The painting was the only one of his own Bennett hung in his home. When Bennett speaks about Duke, he could be describing himself: "He was very consistent about being creative all day long. There wasn't a moment that he wasn't creative. When I was in his presence, he was creating something. At all times." The love was mutual. Ellington wrote in his autobiography that "Tony Bennett is the most unselfish performing artist today."

He seems to have always been with us. He said on his eightieth birthday, "I feel like Rip Van Winkle." He fought in World War II and helped to liberate a concentration camp. He became a top star with "Because Of You," which topped the charts in September 1951 and sold a million copies. He repeated that triumph in November of that year with "Cold, Cold Heart," another gold record, and again and again after that. He marched at Selma. Vittorio De Sica, one of the greatest Italian filmmakers of all time, wanted to make a documentary about Bennett's life in the 1970s. It was not surprising that the foremost Italian humanist director should be drawn to the story of the poor Italian American boy with the warm, gruff street voice, whose passionate antifascism, antiracism and pacifism were shaped by his experiences in the world war.

Today, at eighty-five, Bennett's charm, heart, technical facility, and sincerity have never relinquished their hold on the country. He stands at five feet nine, and his blue eyes still startle. He is extraordinarily handsome for a man of any age, and his is a classic Italian profile. His speaking voice remains virile, husky, with a strong touch of gravel, hickory smoke, and the streets of New York. His mind and heart seem to wrap around every song, and his voice seems to personalize a song as if it were an intimate encounter between singer and listener.

There are only a handful of performers in the history of show business who rise above all the other stars because they are not only great singers but also great entertainers: Sinatra, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, George Burns, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, and Tony Bennett. We are talking about the kind of magic -- stardust -- that transcends all fashions and trends, simply magic that will endure forever.

Bennett has a level of self-awareness that is hewn out of years of struggle and triumph. Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie are among his primary influences. He is eager to admit the impact of others on his work. He told the BBC in 1979, "It wasn't stealing...it was what Stravinsky would have called `sweet thievery.' I was inspired by what I saw and heard, which is really expressing my love for my fellow artist." He has said that Count Basie's "attitude became my philosophy: economy of line, keep it simple, keep it swingin'."

Bennett and Sinatra, his idol, both tell a story from within. Neither of them is simply performing songs; they are living them. They are entirely different, except that each can surprise and be unpredictable.

"Tony stood up, he was always driven and doing what he wanted to do," his niece, Nina Chiappa, told me. "There's that Calabrese element there. I think it's a family trait that we're very tenacious but also very sensitive." Bennett's loyalty to Sinatra is based purely on his admiration of his talent. Nick Riggio, a lifelong friend of Tony who thinks that Tony is even better than Sinatra, recalls that Bennett has always bristled at that suggestion. "Tony would get mad at me," he told me. "He'd always say, `Sinatra invented the art of intimate singing.'"

There seems to be no trace of envy in Bennett's attitude toward Sinatra. Indeed, there is love. He is totally committed to the furtherance of the art. He wrote of Sinatra, "I look at Sinatra as a musicologist would look at Mozart or Bach or Beethoven....Everything Sinatra has ever done musically....is a tremendous contribution to popular music because it has a timelessness to it. That is the test of art, and his music is art."

Sinatra could swing, but Bennett can swing even better. And he is open-hearted to the point that as he sings, I have sometimes visualized a glass shattering or, as the old theatrical phrase goes, "the rafters ringing." For a moment in time, we are alive as the troubadour is alive--jubilant, euphoric, joyous. Unlike the great Garland, there is no edge of hysteria; unlike the magnificent Sinatra, there is not the darkest depression. There is always a touch of hopefulness, for embedded in Bennett's philosophy is a commitment to uplifting his audience.

Judy Garland said it best a long time ago: "I remember the first time I heard Tony sing on a record years ago. I thought, That sound! He isn't copying anyone! His sound gets into your ear and into your heart."

"Artists, as they rise, as they're still trying to find themselves," says record producer and Bobby Darin archivist Jimmy Scalia, "they're lightning in the jar. They take our breath away, whatever they do. And sometimes it comes to a point with an artist that you've not fallen out of love with them, but you've kind of plateaued with them. I loved Ray Charles, there was nothing the guy could do wrong. And then at one point Ray just kind of evened out. Everything he did I liked, but it wasn't like it kicked you in the pants. It's great when an artist like Tony is still trying to find himself. I don't think I can recall anybody else in the business, still living or not, continually trying to find themselves -- somebody who really continued to plug at it and did it. With Tony the freshness is still there. Look at his body of work. At eighty-five he's still got it. And he has managed to work his voice around his age.

"Look, the voice is a tool, it's a muscle. It gets older. You have to work around it. His phrasing is always so good, so intuitive. And that's what keeps him fresh, that's what makes him real. It's hard to stay real for a long time. And he's everywhere. He lives and breathes music. He is music. We've got to hold on to a guy like that with both hands."

There is Bennett the singer, and there is Bennett the painter. He has held steady to his twin vocations of music and art since he was a boy of ten drawing with chalk on the sidewalk in Astoria, Queens, while his boyhood friends good-naturedly threw peanuts at him to try to distract him.

It was not always magic for Tony Bennett. He overcame a drug addiction that almost killed him, and yet that triumph -- probably the greatest victory of his life -- remains a hidden story because he will not really talk about it. "He thinks it's nobody's business but his," music critic Will Friedwald told me.

"I think he accentuates the positive in his own life just as he does in his music."

The 1970s through the mid-1980s were Bennett's blackest period. There were drugs, the decline of the record industry with the ascent of rock and roll, losing his record label (he walked out on Columbia; they didn't walk out on him), a seemingly disastrous second marriage. Peers such as Sinatra were getting older (and so, it must have seemed then, was Bennett). Where do you go? What do you do?

He went through all of that and emerged as the only singer of his generation still performing, on top, and with integrity in a compromised music world. Tony Bennett was from another world and yet he stayed afloat. Most of the stars of his period never broke through again. He did, and he has become the staple, the untouchable. He did not wane. Bennett is a teacher, a watcher and a learner all at once. He has emerged with all the knowledge of what he went through. Not only does he have enormous musical acuity, he has the knowledge of having made it through as a survivor.

Jonathan Schwartz, the impassioned radio champion of the American Songbook, has written that "Tony's rich, textured singing has found a new level of intelligence and candor. When one of his records starts up unexpectedly, he is a conversation stopper: only Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Judy Garland have been able to do this through their recordings. Of the four, only Tony Bennett remains, live and in person, at the top of his power, still building a catalogue for Columbia Records, an enriching gift for the 21st century."

He has somehow managed to convey a deeper and deeper sense of himself to the public and to carve out a greater awareness and appreciation of his achievements. Yet there is much more to Bennett than what is already known; it will continue to unfold in the public's consciousness, and I hope this book will contribute to that unfolding.

But he is cherished, he is loved, and perhaps he knows it. There is still a vulnerability to him, a sensitivity, even an insecurity, that deepens his music and his art. Bennett is the keeper of the flame; he now single-handedly represents the Great American Songbook; he is the custodian, the "believer,"as composer Alec Wilder called him. He makes the songbook relevant to people who were born after Vietnam. He is the bridge from the past to the present.

We still have Tony Bennett.

Another key aspect of Bennett is his devotion to his Italian American identity, with its emphasis on the arts. His pride in his heritage was embedded in his youth, when he imbibed his family's love of music and art. He writes of Italian artists such as Arrigo Benedetti, Vittorio De Sica, and Roberto Rossellini that "They uplift the human spirit and make you feel like there is a great deal to live for." Nina Chiappa recalls Tony telling her when she was a kid, "Don't ever, ever be ashamed of being Italian." "He reminded us," she told me, "that the Italian heritage in the arts goes back many centuries, and that we have a tremendous history."

Bennett has remained true to his heritage and to his art through thick and thin. He has sacrificed for that art, and he has been bold and fearless in holding fast to it. Frank Sinatra was right from the beginning when he said that Bennett "has four sets of balls." He is not a sentimentalist at heart. Jonathan Schwartz told me, "When you think of the things he's seen -- when you worked in nightclubs, you experienced the worst of human behavior. And he has. And being a musician, I mean he's really seen all this crap. I wouldn't call him a cockeyed optimist. I would call him a realist and a man who loves his music." Danny Bennett said of his father, "He is one of those people who has to do what they do. He will die singing."

And he will stay real to the end.

Perhaps, until recently, Sinatra's extraordinary and dramatic career was a contributing factor in overshadowing his equally extraordinary paisan, Anthony Dominick Benedetto. Sinatra represented volatility, danger, and drama. Perhaps there was something of the metaphor inherent in J. M. Synge's great play The Playboy of the Western World in the Sinatra/Bennett saga. Synge depicted a gentle soul who gained the respect of the community when they thought he was a murderer. Sinatra was not a gentle soul, but he was not the villainous figure he portrayed in his public life, either. Ironically, Sinatra's bad-boy image earned him far more public adoration than Bennett's good-boy image, as in Synge's play. And yet both singers have the toughness as well as the vulnerability they spotlight or deny.

Bennett does not push his masculinity. He shows his love. For Bennett it is not unmanly to love and audience and show it. Sinatra, because he showed such aching vulnerability, pain and loss in his music, seemed to feel he needed to be the snarling tough guy once he stopped singing. As personalities, Sinatra hides his vulnerability; Bennett hides his toughness.

He is still not a commercial animal. He is inevitably frailer today; he walks more slowly. He relishes the iconic status he has achieved. Still, he walks alone without an entourage or bodyguard through the beautiful Manhattan streets he adores, usually with his little dog Boo in his arms, alive to the moment and responsive and accessible to strangers.

Jimmy Scalia told me, "Bennett's songs remind me of home. Safe. The wine, the pasta. It's a weird thing. Sinatra was like a relative but distant, because he was higher up. Tony was always like a cousin, he was home. So when I think of him, I have a warmer feeling. When I met him, he's the real deal. He's flesh and bone; you can touch him; you can hear him still. When I see him, there are many things I see in a flash. As soon as I hear his name or hear his voice. Italian American. One of the people who carries the torch of the Great American Songbook. And a painter, too. And a very warm fella. Because he didn't have to pay me any never mind."

Tony Bennett was, and is, a shooting star. To Jimmy Scalia, to Jonathan Schwartz, to all of us who love him, he is family, he is home. And he is magic. As Ray Charles asked, how did he do it?