The “singer’s singer” discusses Amy Winehouse, whose last recorded song is on his new CD, “Duets II,” and shares the one regret he has about the time he spent with the late songstress.
Entertainer Tony Bennett
Tavis: It is always such an honor and a delight, a privilege in fact, to be in the company of this great man, Tony Bennett. In addition to his enormous talent, his tens of millions of records sold and his influence on music for generations to come, he is also one of the most kind, giving and humble people I’ve ever had the pleasure of befriending.
In case you didn’t already know, he indeed has a new project out, a collection of duets featuring some of the biggest names in the business. So here now before our conversation, some of the making of “Duets II.”
Tavis: We recently had on this program just days ago, in fact, Sonny Rollins, as you know, receiving the Kennedy Center honor later this year. I had a chance to see him recently in concert here in L.A.
He’s 81; you’re now 85 – by the way, happy belated birthday. You guys doing this into your 80s, you’re killing me, you’re killing me [laugh] and you’re sounding just as good as ever.
Tony Bennett: Well, we love what we’re doing, you know. Sonny’s always been that way and I just love the fact that I’m able to perform and make people feel good and then I feel good.
Tavis: I should tell you, speaking of your birthday, I have framed on my wall the personal invitation from you to be at your 85th birthday party. I sent a note, as you know. I was in China doing a special for PBS.
Bennett: I know. It was great.
Tavis: Oh, you saw it. Oh, good. I was in China, so I couldn’t come, but I was honored just to be invited by you, so the invite is on my wall. Bragging, I was invited to his 85th birthday party. You guys raised a bunch of money that night for the foundation.
Bennett: Yeah, a couple million dollars. It was a wonderful night. In fact, it was really the best night I ever had in the whole entertainment world that I’ve lived in because it was the Metropolitan Opera. It was a benefit there in this great, great hall which is the most beautiful concert hall in the world.
I was a little apprehensive. I said I don’t know if this is gonna work. It was wonderful. President Clinton came out and announced me and made everybody comfortable right away and it was really the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.
Tavis: Had you performed at the Met prior to that night?
Bennett: Only once before real quick. One quick song and off at some benefit maybe 15 years ago. But this was a full performance and it was a great experience.
Tavis: Tony Bennett does the Met. I love it.
Bennett: Right [laugh].
Tavis: Speaking of the foundation, how is the school going? I’ve been to the school, of course, the performing arts school. How is it coming along?
Bennett: It’s going so well. My wife and I started that school and named it after my great friend, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, and it’s a public school. From that, it’s built up over the last six or seven years into 14 schools in Manhattan, all public schools, and we give them art programs. The average students graduate. 99% graduate, no dropouts, and 97% go to college.
Tavis: I’ve said to tons of friends of mine that the humility and the humanity that is Tony Bennett is evident in the fact that you raise all this money for these kids in New York to attend this art school so they can go on to college and perfect their craft and, of all the people that you could have named it after, starting with yourself.
I mean, Frank Sinatra’s a great artist, to be sure, no doubt about it, but he loved your voice. You don’t name it after yourself. You name it after Frank Sinatra. Now it’s being replicated and scaled up.
Bennett: Well, I learned that from Louis Armstrong who taught all the great musicians how to play music the right way. You know, he was their inspiration. I was such a fan of his as a young boy and I’ll never forget that he eulogized Bix Beiderbecke who used to be with Paul Whiteman’s Band, a white trumpet player.
He always would just give him the endorsement, the Bix Beiderbecke, you know. Even at that time, I said that’s the right thing to do. Why keep talking about yourself? Why not talk about your inspirations or the people that inspired you? That’s why.
Sinatra was 12 years older than I was, so he was my master. He and Nat Cole and Jo Stafford, Dean Martin, to me, they were just great performers and I learned a lot just from watching him.
Tavis: I want to go back to Sonny Rollins only because he said something on this program recently about how much time he puts into practicing every day.
Bennett: That’s good.
Tavis: You still practice?
Bennett: Oh, absolutely.
Tavis: You still do?
Bennett: It’s not a matter of practice. You pray to get better. It’s a matter of keep learning, to keep studying, you know. You’re only as good as your next show. The show that you did is gone. The next show, you have to be in shape. You can’t just hand it in and say so what. You have to care about it.
Tavis: I think I’ve said this before, but, again, it moves me every time I see you in performance. After every song, you take that microphone, tuck it under your arm and you applaud for the audience as they’re applauding you. Where’d that come from? How did you start that?
Bennett: Well, being 85 [laugh], I caught the last end of vaudeville. It was tremendous training to watch Jack Benny and George Burns and watch these great masters that made it look so effortless and easy.
In those days when Rosemary Clooney and I first started, we started getting a couple of million-selling records and they told us, “Well, you’re doing okay, but it’s gonna take nine years before you really learn how to become a consummate performer.”
Sure enough, they were accurate because the public has become my teachers from thinking in a vaudeville way rather than in a corporate way. I just think of the audience.
Richard Rodgers told me during the commercial – I only met him once, but he saw I was just starting out and he said, “Tony, if the audience likes it, go to sleep on that. Don’t listen to anybody else.” It was a good lesson, you know. You make the audience your friends, not an enemy, when you’re going on that stage. There’s no such thing as a cold audience, only a cold performer.
Tavis: Wow. I just love the fact that you feel that way, that you applaud them after every song. It’s amazing to see. It takes my breath away every single time I view that.
You mentioned you and Rosemary Clooney back in the day when you first starting having those couple million-selling records. What do you make of the fact – and I’m sure “Duets II” will be the same way – what do you make of the fact that “Duets I” and “Duets II” are at the top of the list of your best-selling records of your whole career?
Bennett: It is. The first one was the biggest selling record and this…
Tavis: Is on the way.
Bennett: It’s on the way. I heard a rumor that, in a couple of days, it’s very possible it’s gonna go to number one.
Tavis: I heard that same rumor [laugh].
Bennett: I couldn’t believe it.
Tavis: I could almost verify that rumor. It’s gonna be number one in a couple of days. But what do you make of the fact that these two records have done so well?
Bennett: Well, you know, as wonderful as the first one was, what I like about these new artists that came about six years later is that they’re all going to school now. Lady Gaga, you know, she’s from NYU. Others are going to Berkeley College, you know, in Boston and Julliard.
They’re being taught how to prepare, how to get ready. Instead of waiting those nine years, they’re walking in real professionals, so I like that.
Tavis: He mentioned Lady Gaga. Let me just tease you with some of the people who appear on “Duets II” with Mr. Bennett. In no particular order, Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, Cheryl Crow, some woman named Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban, Faith Hill, Nora Jones, Lady Gaga, the aforementioned, Katy Lang, John Mayer, Willie Nelson – good Lord – Queen Latifah, Carrie Underwood, Amy Winehouse and others.
A lot of talk about, of course, Amy Winehouse. The word is that this was sadly and tragically her last recording. She’s, of course, dead at 27 and the word is this was her last recording. Talk to me about Amy Winehouse.
Bennett: Amy Winehouse, I met her about a year before we recorded with her father. He’s quite a jazz singer himself, you know. In Europe, she’s huge. I mean, the public loved her so much and they were rooting for her so much.
I got a big kick out of them because I was at Royal Albert Hall for two nights, a big concert hall, and they would come every night. Every night, they showed up and we just became good close friends. Her dream was to record with me.
So I chose that Johnny Green song that all musicians consider their national anthem, “Body and Soul.” Coleman Hawkins was the only musician that ever went to number one on Billboard with an instrumental, not a vocal, and inspired all the jazz artists of the world. To this day, it’s their favorite song, “Body and Soul.”
She sang it and, I’ll tell you, she was a great, authentic jazz singer. She heard it all, she knew just what to do. I was a little apprehensive when she was recording with me as to getting comfortable at the Abbey Studios in Britain. I finally said, “I may be wrong. I think you’re influenced by Dinah Washington.”
Well, that little sentence, I was just trying to get her comfortable, but I couldn’t believe it. She changed like that. The minute I said Dinah Washington, she said, “That’s my idol. That’s the one I believe in more than anyone else.” She just got so comfortable and then sang and used that Dinah Washington inflection and the record came out beautiful.
Tavis: What made you say that, the Dinah Washington reference?
Bennett: Well, I heard her sing a couple of phrases there and it sounded like Dinah, who was a good friend of mine through the years. Sure enough, the record came out beautiful.
Tavis: How did you in your life and career, because you guys were partying pretty hard back in those days, how did you avoid being on that track where you ruined your instrument, your voice, and ruined your physical specimen, end up being dead before 85? How did you avoid all of that?
Bennett: Well, I had a great accompanist, Ralph Sharon, at the time. He lives in Denver now. We both were talking about it. We were pretty naughty and it was that period of time when Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Kennedys and like what was happening in our country.
We got a little naughty, you know, and started taking a little cocaine there. I thought I was doing great, but realistically, you know, I was hiding, doing something illegal and all that. I never really felt comfortable about it.
I know this fellow, Jack Rawlins, who said he used to handle Lenny Bruce and I said, “I know Lenny. What do you think of him?” He said one sentence that changed my life. He said, “He sinned against his talent.”
Tavis: “He sinned against his talent.”
Bennett: And that changed my life. I just stopped everything. I had no withdrawal. I just realized I was doing wrong. I thought I was singing good and I wasn’t. It feels so good now not to get hooked on anything except health.
Tavis: And the music.
Bennett: And the music. Just having a good normal life and what a blessing that is. What a blessing it is just to be alive.
Tavis: You’d only known Amy Winehouse, earlier as you suggested, you’d only known her for a year prior to your recording with her, Mr. Bennett. But I wonder whether or not you felt it wasn’t your place, was it not appropriate, did it not come up. Did you and Amy have any conversation at that time about her struggles?
Bennett: That’s the little regret that I had because we recorded in Britain and we had to just take off and go sing with Queen Latifah in Los Angeles who did a beautiful job. But I got along so good with her father. As it is now from this program and the few days I’ll be in Britain doing – they’re still celebrating my birthday.
Tavis: That’s a good thing.
Bennett: I’ll be at the Palladium and, you know, the late Cary Grant was a good friend of mine and, being British, he said, “You’ve got to play the Palladium.” So I made a promise to myself I’d make that happen. The BBC is gonna televise it in celebrating my birthday.
I wanted to have Amy Winehouse on that, but I wanted to tell her story I just told you. I wanted to tell her to stop, that if she doesn’t stop, she’ll do herself in. It was just bad timing on my part because I was traveling. I couldn’t get to tell her about that.
Tavis: It’s one of the best tracks on this CD, though.
Bennett: Thank you.
Tavis: It’s a great track.
Bennett: Thank you.
Tavis: Speaking of great tracks, I’ve referenced her name earlier and I want to come back to her because you’re at the top of your game and, to my mind – I’ve said this before.
You always get in trouble when you make these kinds of observations, but to my mind, Aretha Franklin is the greatest woman to ever sing. I mean, I’m the biggest Aretha Franklin fan in the world. She does everything. She does it all well, she does every genre, she’s amazing.
When you think of Aretha Franklin and Tony Bennett together, when I got this CD, the first thing I did was go right to that track. I wanted to hear what did Aretha Franklin and Tony Bennett sound like together.
Tell me about recording with another – the word icon gets so over-used, but you are all that, Aretha is all that. What happens when the two of you all get together on a song?
Bennett: Well, the greatest moment that I ever experienced was the night at the Metropolitan Opera when we did this big benefit for the Met. Surprisingly, she said, “I’d like to do that with you.” I said, “Great, let’s do it.”
I wanted her to do “Lost in the Stars,” a Kurt Weill song. She said, “No, I want to do “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” a beautiful song written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michele Legrand. She came out and sang it and, boy, it tore the opera house apart. It was wonderful.
Tavis: It’s a great project. I know you’ve been asked this question before, but because I’m curious, I’m gonna ask it again. For these duets now, these duet projects, how do you figure out who the artists are?
I mean, I know Aretha walked up to you and said, “I want to do something,” so that’s makes it a little bit easier when the queen says I want to do something with you, that makes it easy. But how do you pick these artists and the tracks that you want them to sing?
Bennett: Well, my son Danny came up with the idea of duets in the first place. Believe me, the second duet album, but this is it. I mean, we did two albums. We did one that really ended up, when we did a television special on a great channel, it won seven Emmys in one night. But this is the second one and that’s it. From here, we just do something different after that. We won’t do duets too much, you know.
Tavis: How can you say that’s it when there are so many other artists I know who would love to do stuff with Tony Bennett?
Bennett: Well, you know, that’s one of the things I learned about vaudeville. You can’t stay on there too long.
Tavis: You can’t stay on the stage forever, huh? [Laugh]
Bennett: You got to know when to say that’s it, yeah [laugh].
Tavis: You got to know when to say when.
Bennett: Yeah, you got to say that’s it.
Tavis: But I suspect, though, after two projects now, if this were going to be – and obviously to your point, it will be – the defining part of your corpus where duets are concerned, I assume you’re okay with this, though.
Bennett: Oh, I loved it. I love the way it came out. You see, this was different. We went with Andre Bocelli in Pisa, Italy in his home recording studio, Amy Whitehouse in London, Abbey Road, the Nora Jones and Natalie Cole was in Los Angeles.
Queen Latifah did a beautiful job on “Who Can I Turn To?” She did that out there. So we went to Nashville with Carrie Underwood and, Lady Gaga, we did that in New York. So it was kind of an international experience.
Tavis: You were everywhere, yeah.
Bennett: In other words, instead of having the artists come to me, we went out to them and made them comfortable where they’re comfortable.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, to make them comfortable. I would assume that, for a lot of these folk, talented though they might be, there’s got to be a level of intimidation when you step into a studio with Tony Bennett.
Bennett: No, but that’s what I liked about this album. These new artists that are so successful, but they got it from school. They went to school and they had good teachers that told them how to prepare and how to show up properly, be memorized and know just what you’re doing and all that.
That’s the difference. This new group is gonna be around a long time because it wasn’t a shortcut. They just had wonderful teachers that showed them what to expect and what’s gonna happen if they go into the entertainment world.
Tavis: For those who don’t know the Tony Bennett back story, did you have the opportunity to do that in school yourself or was being on the road your school?
Bennett: Well, I was in France and Germany in the Second World War. When I came out, I joined under the GI Bill of Rights, the American Theater Wing. Because that circle in Chicago called it the Good War, boy, they gave us the best teachers.
I mean, the best teachers in acting and Stanislavski’s secretary. We performed with Stanislavski the method acting and was Mr. Jelinski and Piatra de Andrea taught us Bel Canto, how to keep your voice going through the years with a good technique.
Then Mimi Spear, right on 52nd Street, as a wonderful coach. She told me “Don’t imitate another singer because you’ll be one of the chorus. Imitate musicians. Find out who you like.” She would point from her brown house across the street. The marquis said “Billy Holiday, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Errol Garner, Art Tatum.”
I chose Art Tatum because he was different. He’d change the tempos because it was all dance music in those days. He would change it and make a story out of a pop song. I took that technique. Then Stan Getz had that nice honey-wide sound on the saxophone. I put those two together and I got my style that way. So I had good training. The Theater Wing was fantastic.
Tavis: What’s next for you? I mean, you said this is it for this, the “Duets II” stuff, but since you’re obviously showing no signs of retiring…
Tavis: Nope [Laugh.] You said that really, really quick, nope [laugh].
Bennett: Well, I like being alive [laugh]. I enjoy it very much and I also paint. I paint every day and I’m gonna continue doing that.
Tavis: Well, everything you do, you do well, including the attire. You’re so dapper all the time.
Bennett: That goes right back at you. You’re the most wonderful interviewer. Thank you.
Tavis: You’re kind, you’re kind. I am always honored to have Tony Bennett, which I like to say every now and again, just to say it, Anthony Benedetto.
Bennett: Thank you.
Tavis: I love having him on this program. He can come back and co-host any day he wants to.
The new project from Tony Bennett is called “Duets II” and it is a beautiful, wonderfully sounding potpourri of some of the greatest voices on the planet and only Tony Bennett could gather all these voices together in one project. You will love it, I can assure you. Mr. Bennett, I love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.
Bennett: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Glad to have you here.
Bennett: Thank you.
Tavis: Take care.
Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.