Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Earlier this month, we taped a special week of programming from New York City. While there, we had the opportunity to sit down with legendary entertainer, Tony Bennett. At 90 years young, the musician and artist is as vibrant and productive as ever. He joined us to talk about his latest projects and the continued celebration of his 90th year.
So we’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Tony Bennett coming up right now.
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Tavis: To quote the title of his latest book, Tony Bennett is just getting started to celebrate his 90th year. He released a new text and a new album, “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90”. Last December, NBC televised a special concert in honor of his birthday. Before our conversation, here now a clip from his NBC televised special, “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90”.
Tavis: I get excited every time I see you do this, but that NBC special was something special.
Tony Bennett: Well, thank you very much.
Tavis: It was amazing.
Bennett: I loved it.
Tavis: Yeah. How did it feel? I mean, you’ve been feted so many times around the world, but how did it feel to have all of those stars show up to celebrate you on your 90th birthday?
Bennett: It was unbelievable, just amazing. All these great artists performing and celebrating my 90th birthday, and I’m just getting started [laugh].
Tavis: I know you must get asked this all the time. We’ve had these conversations before, but for those who’ve never heard you talk about this, how is it that you still sound that way? How do you keep that instrument together?
Bennett: Well, I love what I’m doing. I always have. As early as a very young person, I knew that I just loved to sing for people and I feel that way right now. I still have a lot to learn.
Tavis: No, you don’t. You?
Bennett: No, really.
Tavis: Like what? What are you learning at 90?
Bennett: The fact that the audiences have been so good to me through the years, I feel completely content about performing for them. I really feel like I’m just — I feel I can get better, you know. I’m enjoying my life very much.
Tavis: I don’t know that I’ve ever told you this on camera. I’ve told you this privately in our conversations, but I don’t know that I’ve ever said it on national television, but I will say it now. Since you mention how good the audiences have been to you over the years, I noted the very first time I saw you in concert many years ago, and I’ve been honored to see so many times.
But the very first time I saw you, I noticed how after every song you take your microphone, tuck it under your arm and you applaud the audience. Then you pull it back out and say a few words, whatever, and you go on to the next song. But I’d never seen an artist, certainly one of your stature, who onstage shows his or her appreciation for the audience by clapping for them between every song.
Bennett: Well, they’ve been wonderful to me. You know, I try to make people feel good. And when I see that it’s starting to happen, I really get moved onstage when I see that they’re enjoying themselves, forgetting their problems. It’s a wonderful profession. I love to perform because I love to make people feel good. That’s my whole game is to try to make people feel good while I’m onstage…
…my biggest influence because I remember very clearly one day, she took a dress. She was making dresses to feed three children because my father died. She threw the dress over her shoulder. She said, “Don’t have me work on a bad dress.” That sentence changed my whole career. I decided that I would never sing a cheap song just to get a hit song.
I decided to stay with quality and, by doing that, I ended up falling in love with the Great American Songbook that Fred Astaire was really responsible for because everybody wrote the best songs for him. Cole Porter, Jerome Kern. The greatest composers wrote for Fred Astaire and he was my master. To this day, two people that I love so much to watch and be entertained by is Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplin.
Tavis: To this day?
Bennett: Those two artists. They just knew how to do it.
Tavis: You mention Cole Porter. I’m from Indiana as is Cole Porter. So he’s the pride of Indiana. I grew up listening to Cole Porter in Indiana because he was.
Bennett: Right, absolutely. He’s the best.
Tavis: He’s one of the best, yeah, yeah.
Bennett: He was the best.
Tavis: When you mentioned earlier that you promised to do only quality stuff, you never wanted to sing a cheap song. You didn’t want to do something because some producer begged you to do it to get a quick hit, so you’ve been true to who you are and true to your own artistic genius and artistic muse. But I wonder if I can ask you what for you makes a great song?
I’ve asked this question of other artists and certainly great songwriters like Smokey Robinson. I love to ask great songwriters what for them makes a great song, but you are an interpreter of that Great American Songbook. What for you, what for Tony Bennett, makes a great song?
Bennett: All I could say is the best example is a composer by the name of Irving Berlin. He just knew how to do it. It was amazing. Every time he wrote a song, it was simple and yet very profound at the same time and very lasting. You never get tired of hearing a great Irving Berlin song.
Tavis: Thank you. I think you answered my question. Simple, profound and lasting. Those are part of the ingredients of a great song for you.
Tavis: You’ve had a lot of collaborations. You’ve been hanging out with Lady Gaga.
Bennett: She’s wonderful.
Tavis: Amy Winehouse did some stuff with you. I mean, you have collaborated with a number of people through the generations. What is it about collaborations? Because you’ve done so many, what is it about collaborations that you enjoy?
Bennett: Well, it’s the individual talents. Certain people have just — they just know how to do it. Lady Gaga, she doesn’t even realize to this day how great she really is. I think she’s going to be around a long time. I think she’s going to do very well in films.
She’s a wonderful person and very honest and very educated. She plays wonderful piano, she composes, she records. And more than anything else, the public adores her. They love her. I think, hopefully, that she’ll be around for a very long time and stays very popular.
Tavis: You mentioned Lady Gaga perhaps doing more films into the future which raises the question for me. There have been so many great artists who decided to do a litany of things. They may have started out doing one particular thing.
They start out acting and then they started singing, or they started out singing and then they started acting. They started here and they did this and that and the other. Obviously, you’re a great painter. When did you start painting?
Bennett: Well, when I was about seven or eight years old.
Tavis: That young?
Bennett: My father died and my relatives were so supportive to help my mom out who had to raise three children. We were very, very poor. My relatives would come over to make her feel good and I was always so grateful that they were so nice to her.
They were the ones that told me. They’d say, “We love the way that you paint and we love the way you sing.” I said, “That’s who I am.” It was a wonderful thing that came from my own family, my relatives. They were so good to my mom.
Tavis: And they encouraged you to do more painting?
Bennett: They just said, “We love the way you paint and the way you sing” and I just said, “That’s who I am.” And to this day, that’s all I’ve been studying is learning to paint and sing.
Tavis: Paint and sing.
Bennett: And I love it, I love it.
Tavis: Have you slowed down in your painting? Are you still…
Bennett: No. I paint every day.
Tavis: Still? Every day?
Bennett: Every day [laugh].
Tavis: You make me feel like a slacker, man. You’re making me feel really, really lazy if you’re getting up every day…
Bennett: Oh, no, no. You’re not. I watch you every night. Come on.
Tavis: No, man, you’re making me feel lazy. You’re painting every single day, man. So like what do you paint? Different things and different moods? Like when you get up and paint every day, is there an agenda? You pick up a paint brush and just go? Like what are you painting every day?
Bennett: Well, fortunately, I live right across the street from Central Park, which is right in the heart of Manhattan, but it’s nature. So my boss, my God, is nature. It’s everything. No matter what an artist comes up with, including Picasso or anyone else, it’s not as good as the creativeness of nature.
Nature is unbelievable and the more you study it, the more you can’t — we’re just a student of nature. Nature is the boss. It tells us just what to do and what not to do.
Tavis: So in the mornings when you wake up — I hear you. What not to do, yeah [laugh]. That’s funny. I could take that 18 million different ways, but I take your point. So if nature is all of that, all you have to do is wake up in the morning and look out the window at Central Park, and you get inspired to do something.
Bennett: That’s exactly right, and that’s why I live there. I live right across the street from Central Park and right there is nature. And nature, it makes you realize that the folly of man — you see all these gigantic skyscrapers and it’s the opposite of nature. Nature is never straight and mathematical. It’s strictly natural all the time. The trees are natural…
Tavis: It’s free.
Bennett: Every tree is different. Every blade of grass is different. Every sky is different. And it’s fabulous to just keep watching nature. That’s the boss. That is the master painter is nature.
Tavis: Do you paint on the road or just when you’re home?
Bennett: I paint every day.
Tavis: Wherever you are, you just pull out your brushes. Has it always been color? Do you do sketches? Do you do…
Bennett: Do all of it.
Tavis: All of the above.
Bennett: You just study anatomy. I study people in composition. It’s a wonderful way to live.
Tavis: We started this conversation by you saying — I was going to say jokingly, but you weren’t joking at all, knowing you — when you said I’m just getting started, you meant that [laugh]. I won’t say jokingly. But is there anything musically, anything musically that you haven’t done?
I hear your point about the painting. So every day you wake up, you look out the window wherever you are. You see something in nature. It inspires you to do something new. I get that about the painting. Is there anything musically at 90 that you haven’t done yet?
Bennett: That’s a good question. There’s an automatic search about that, so I can’t say this is what I’d like to do eventually.
Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.
Bennett: I don’t know yet.
Tavis: You’ll know when you see it?
Bennett: I like to get involved with different — recently, I met a brand new trumpet player from Queens who’s fantastic. He’s very subtle and very melodic and yet very muted. It’s not like a loud trumpet. It’s kind of — he understands interpretations. I love jazz. I love it, I love it, because it’s spontaneous. It’s very honest.
It’s the most honest form of performing because you just think for the second the very moment of how you feel at that particular moment. It’s a great experience to not only do it yourself, but listening to other artists that do that and how they feel that moment and make something out of it.
Tavis: So when you meet the right people or the right opportunities come up for you, that’s how you figure out what the next step is?
Bennett: Oh, yeah. That’s how it works.
Tavis: It’s organic and authentic. It just kind of happens.
Bennett: It’s proper involvement.
Tavis: What do you hope that your audiences have taken away from seeing you all these years? You talked earlier about the joy they give you. What do you hope they take away from your performances?
Bennett: I can’t tell you how thrilled I am because when you first start, you really don’t know what to do. It takes about nine years to really learn what to leave out and what to put in. I just can’t really figure it out. I just love to make people feel good. That’s my premise.
When I walk on that stage, I want everybody to end up feeling good. And when they feel good, I walk away feeling so content about that. I made them forget their problems for that one hour that I’m onstage.
Tavis: So as long as they feel better leaving than when they came, you’re content.
Tavis: You’re content, yeah. Are there nights when you walk off the stage when you feel like you were not in tiptop shape? You ever feel that way? Or do you always feel like, “I killed it again tonight”?
Bennett: No. I can’t wait to hit the stage.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh[.
Bennett: I love to entertain people [laugh]. I like to make them feel good.
Tavis: You just can’t wait to get out there.
Bennett: I can’t wait. I love it.
Tavis: On the nights when you don’t feel like you’re in perfect pitch or in great voice, how do you navigate through those nights when you don’t feel that you’re at your…
Bennett: I don’t show up [laugh]
Tavis: I love that [laugh]. So if you’re not at a 10, you don’t go onstage. It’s like I love that. That is funny. I’ll remember that line for as long as I live. If I’m not on the top of my game, I just don’t show up [laugh]. I got to get myself together after that. Tell me about this CD, your 90th tribute CD, 90th birthday CD. There’s a lot of good material on that thing, man.
Bennett: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: There’s a lot of good material on there.
Bennett: Well, there’s a lot of great performers that I’m involved with on this album. I haven’t heard it yet, but I know there’s a lot of good stuff in it that I’ve done through the years [laugh].
Tavis: I guess at this point in your career, you ever get tired of hearing yourself sing?
Tavis: You still like the way…
Bennett: I won’t release it if it isn’t right in there, yeah.
Tavis: But you’re still happy with the way you sound all these years later?
Tavis: You’re happy with your voice.
Bennett: I’ve had very good training.
Bennett: At the American Theater when I came out of the army and the service. I joined the American Theater Wing and it was the best thing that ever happened to me…
Tavis: Does a lot of good training over the years.
Bennett: Because, boy, they taught me well about never compromise and do everything by quality. Never cheat the public. Give them quality, quality, quality.
Tavis: You’ve done that for 90 years now.
Bennett: That’s what I like to do.
Tavis: I want to close by referencing your book again, “Tony Bennett: Just Getting Started”, the book written with Scott Simon. Can I just tell you, I love the way you did this book. There are two or three things I love about it.
Bennett: Thank you.
Tavis: One, I love all the artists. I don’t know if you can see this, Jonathan, but there’s just art all in this thing. All the art, of course, by Mr. Bennett himself.
Bennett: Thank you.
Tavis: The book is just full of art, number one. But number two, I Iove how this book tells the stories of your friendships and your relationships with all kind of people in your life. I’m just going through this book and looking at the names of the people that you’ve known and the stories you tell about your friendships with them. Ella Fitzgerald…
Bennett: Wow. She was my neighbor.
Tavis: Jackie Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King, Jr. I mean, the time you spent with Dr. King supporting and helping to raise money for the civil rights movement…
Bennett: Well, that was because of Harry Belafonte. He told me to do it. I said, “I fought a war. I’m not…” When he told me what was going on with the racial prejudice, I decided that I would go with him. That’s the only time I took a march and it changed my life. It’s funny.
Tavis: I was about to say, it’s got to be looking back on your life. For all that you’ve accomplished musically, that’s got to be one of the high points of your life. When the country really needed you, you stepped up and did your part in the civil rights movement.
Bennett: Right. You know, it was Harry Belafonte who described to me some of the tragedies, the way people were being treated. And when I heard that, at first I said, “I don’t want to fight. I just fought a war. I don’t want to fight anymore.”
Tavis: But if you need my help, I’ll be there, and you showed up.
Bennett: When he told me what was really going on, I said, “I’ll go with you” and we took that walk.
Tavis: Well, you’ve been a good friend to a lot of people over the years, a good friend to a lot of people. And the stories in this book underscore that, and you’ve been good to all your fans. You’ve given us a lot of good music, a lot of good times.
Bennett: I’m your biggest fan.
Tavis: Well, I’m your biggest fan. This is one big mutual admiration society, man, so I appreciate it.
Bennett: Thank you.
Tavis: Tony Bennett is in his 90th year and still doing it like nobody’s business. His book just out not long ago is called “Tony Bennett: Just Getting Started” and there is a CD, “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90”. The CD is amazing.
I don’t know how this NBC thing works, but if you did not see that NBC special that celebrated his 90th birthday — we played a clip at the top of our show — please find a way to see that. I can tell you, you won’t spend a better two hours than watching that special.
Bennett: Well, thank you.
Tavis: It was a powerful thing and it should win every award that it’s nominated for. So congratulations in advance on whatever comes out of that. But thank you, sir, for coming back.
Bennett: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Mr. Bennett, I love you. Good to see you again.
Bennett: We love you. I watch you every night.
Tavis: I thank you, sir. Mr. Bennett’s talked a lot about his artwork tonight. And if you are in New York, you can see his exhibit at the Paley Center for Media, something else you can go support regarding this great artist, Tony Bennett. Thanks for tuning in and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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