Sunday, July 01, 2001

Steppin' out with singer-painter Tony Bennett

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While in Cincinnati — except when singing at Riverbend today — Tony Bennett is sure to steal some time with his sketch pad, drawing scenes of the Queen City.

        “Ever since I was a child, I always knew that I wanted to sing and paint,” says the pop singer, who never stopped painting between his five million-selling singles in the '50s, and his subsequent nine Grammy Awards.

        He laughs when asked if he ever tires of singing his signature tune since 1962, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

        “I have a stock answer,” says Mr. Bennett, who turns 75 on Aug. 3. “Do you ever get tired of making love?”

        Mr. Bennett was chatting by phone from his Central Park South apartment in Manhattan, where his picture window faces a view he has painted many times. His art, evocative watercolors, oils and sketches signed Anthony Benedetto, hang in galleries and celebrities' homes throughout the world.

        “I'm right over the trees and can see the carriages and the street and the people promenading in Central Park. I paint right in the park,” he says.

        Around the corner is Carnegie Hall, a gig he plays when he isn't appearing at Radio City Music Hall, or performing some 200 other shows a year.

        “Tony Bennett, the name, was given to me by Bob Hope, who discovered me in Greenwich Village, and Benedetto is when I paint,” he explains. “I'm doing the two things I love.”

Mr. Bennett's blues period

    Who: Tony Bennett
    When: 8 p.m. today     Where: Riverbend Music Center
    Tickets: $17.25-$52.25 at Ticketmaster outlets, phone 562-4949 and online at
    Read the review: Monday at Cincinnati.Com, keyword: music; and Tuesday in Tempo.
        Soft-spoken and modest, Mr. Bennett says “Oh, thanks” a lot, before launching into memories of Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney. He had just returned from Italy, where he took his brother to the tiny village where their father was born in Calabria, “the toe of the boot.”

        “My dad died when we were both very young, and my mom raised us, an amazing lady,” says the singer, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, the son of a grocery store manager and a seamstress. A father of four from his two marriages, Mr. Bennett now shares his life with Susan Crow, a thirtysomething social studies teacher.

        Before his Italian sojourn — where he stayed at the villa of his good friend Zubin Mehta near Florence and painted amid the olive groves and vineyards — he started recording a blues album with a few friends: Ray Charles, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow, B.B. King, k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel.

        He has an affinity for the blues.

        “There's a freedom to it. You don't have to say, am I feeling this? Right from the first note, it goes right into feeling, and that's all you can contribute to a record, anyway.”

Singing as a soldier

        Mr. Bennett seemed destined to sing or paint from childhood: He first sang in a club at 13. A talented artist, he studied art in high school with the American portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler, at Manhattan's School of Industrial Arts.

        It wasn't until he was stationed with the Army in Germany in 1944 that he began to seriously consider music as a career. Mr. Bennett had a gruesome job, digging American bodies out of mass graves — punishment for befriending an African-American soldier named Frank Smith in the mess hall. He was rescued from that duty to become the music librarian for the American Armed Forces Network Orchestra in Wiesbaden.

        “We were just waiting for enough points to get home,” Mr. Bennett says. “I was allowed to sing two songs a week with the orchestra, and hand out the music to the musicians.

        “I got hooked, completely,” he says with a laugh. “I said I was going to make this a profession.”

        After the war, he took voice lessons on the G.I. Bill, caught the eye of Bob Hope, and began cranking out hits like “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches.”

A tribute to the greats

        A flip through his coffee table art book, What My Heart Has Seen (Rizzoli International; $40) reveals portraits of musical greats like Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald.1

        He has painted or sketched a who's who of the music biz, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles. It's a record of a lifetime performing among musical legends, and an example of just how interwined are his two life passions.

        “My favorite painting was the one of Duke Ellington, with the roses,” he says. Mr. Bennett was on the road with Mr. Ellington in the early '70s, and their families became close.

        “He would send me a dozen roses whenever he wrote a new song, in the hopes that I would record it,” Mr. Bennett says. “His whole premise was always that God is love. That's what I call the painting, and I put roses behind him when I painted him.”

        He adds, laughing, “He taught me how to sing. He said, "Sing sweet and put a little dirt in it.”'

Crooning classics revives career

        Mr. Bennett did an album cover for Ms. Clooney, his friend since they did a show for CBS in the early '50s called Songs for Sale.

        “We're brother and sister; we started together,” he says. “She's what I call a Bing Crosby singer, a natural. In those days, I was really struggling, and I couldn't get over it — she'd walk into the studio at the last minute, she had a kind of photographic mind, and always sang natural. To this day, she sings that way.”

        Like Ms. Clooney, whose music has made a comeback in recent years, Mr. Bennett is enjoying celebrity with a new generation of fans. He performed on MTV and released his MTV Unplugged album in 1994. He's been crowned “cool” by Spin magazine.

        “It started to happen when my son, Danny, started managing me, really 20 years ago,” he says. Instead of singing the “silly songs” the record producers wanted, his son encouraged him to return to standards like “It Had to Be You” and “Steppin' Out with My Baby.”

        “The minute I did that, I won those Grammys. It was a personal victory for me,” he says.

        “To this day, there is a treasure chest of great songs that still haven't been done, by Cole Porter and Jerome Kern and Gershwin and Ellington and Harold Arlen. ...” he ticks off. “They're not old-fashioned; they're just timeless.”

What an adventure

        Not surprisingly, he compares it to painting.

        “It's like the French Impressionists: No matter what new trend of modern art comes along, everybody still loves Monet and van Gogh.”

        Before he comes to Cincinnati, Mr. Bennett will stop in Youngstown, Ohio, for a special exhibit of his Italian landscapes at the Butler Institute of American Art, through July 22. There, his art hangs in the company of Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. In May, Mr. Bennett joined the ranks of Leroy Neimann and Peter Max when he painted the race images adorning posters for the 2001 Kentucky Derby.

        When his friends celebrate his 75th birthday next month, it will be at a party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

        “I can't believe it,” Mr. Bennett says. “From where I started from, and what's happening to me now, wow, what an adventure!”

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