The Energizer Bunny has nothing on Tony Bennett, because the legendary, 89-years-young singer just keeps going and going.
“I love to perform for people and make them feel good for the few hours that I am onstage and with them, so my heart is always with the audience,” Bennett says.
Bennett will appear Jan. 16 at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio and follow with a show Jan. 17 at the Pechanga Resort Casino in Cabazon.
The vocalist, who is also an accomplished painter, believes life is a perpetual learning process. “You know, when I first got my big break from Pearl Bailey, she told me, ‘I can start you out, but it will take you 10 years just to learn how to walk on the stage,’” Bennett recalls. “And she was right. All performers need to grow into themselves and learn in particular how to work with a live audience.”
Before Bennett got back out on the road, he shared his heartfelt feelings about first coming to California, how painting complements his singing, and who he wished he had been able to duet with back in the day.
photo by mark Seliger
Tony Bennett has found a creative mix between singing and painting.
Do you recall the very first time you came to Southern California, and what your impressions were after you arrived?
“I lived in Los Angeles for several years, and although I consider myself a New Yorker, it was a thrill to be out in California. I got the opportunity to meet and establish friendships with many of the artists I admired, including Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. They both gave me good advice that I still follow today.”
What did they tell you?
“I had asked Cary Grant about whether I should consider doing films, and he told me that making films was very tedious, and you spent hours all by yourself in a trailer until they would call you onto the set. He said to stick to live performances in front of an audience — and to this day, that is what I love to do the most.
“And then Fred Astaire told me that whenever he planned out a dance routine and he thought he had gotten it perfect, he would then go back in and take out 5 more minutes — the idea of honing what you do creatively and never just saying, ‘OK, I’m done.’”
What is it about the Palm Springs area that appeals to you?
“It’s a beautiful part of the country, and I have done several paintings of Palm Springs over the years. Nature never disappoints when you are a visual artist.”
Painting is a deep passion of yours. I’ve actually seen you at work in Central Park in New York, but I never wanted to interrupt your process.
“Well, next time you see me in the park, please say hello! I love painting in Central Park. I go to the areas where it is really about nature. For me, that is an inspiration.”
photo courtesy of tony bennett on facebook
Tony Bennett transfers a landscape to canvas.
Is there something about painting that you relate to when you’re singing in terms of rhythm, the strokes, or the creative space you’re in when you’re doing both?
“I have been painting and singing all my life, and especially as my singing career took off, it has been wonderful to have painting as another creative outlet. I view it as a yin-yang relationship. When you are a performer, it is very gregarious, and you are in front of thousands of people. But when I am painting, it is just me and the canvas — 4 hours goes by, and it seems like 4 minutes.”
How do you feel your talent for both painting and singing complement one another?
“The two balance each other so that if I get a bit burned out from performing, then I paint, and when I am done painting, I get back on the stage. But either way, I am always staying in a creative zone.”
Can you give us a taste of what audience members can expect to see and hear during your two upcoming area appearances?
“First of all, I have a marvelous jazz quartet that I have been touring and recording with for many years. I love working with jazz musicians, because they are such master musicians that it allows for complete spontaneity on stage. If I want to change a tempo of a song or sing a different song than what was planned, it’s not an issue. It keeps each performance very fresh, and we never play the same song the same way twice.”
Is there one specific song that is your absolute favorite to sing after all these years? Why does it remain that dear to you?
“I know it may sound obvious, but I love my signature song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, because it made me a citizen of the world. Once I recorded that song, I became an international touring artist. No matter what country I perform in or what language is spoken, the audience knows all the words to the song.”
photo courtesy of tony bennett on facebook
Among Tony Bennett's duets was Lady Gaga.
Do you feel a certain responsibility for introducing and nurturing the Great American Songbook for each new generation of listeners? Why is it important to keep these songs alive?
“The ’1920s, ’30s, and ’40s was a true Golden Age of songwriters, when you had so many master craftsmen writing songs at the same time — Cole Porter, the Gershwins [George and Ira], Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin — just astounding. So one of the reasons I wanted to do the Duets recordings [in 2006 and 2011] was to work with these contemporary artists [including Michael Bublé, Elvis Costello, Carrie Underwood, and Lady Gaga] and get them excited by this music so it would continue to carry on. The Great American Songbook is one of the finest gifts the United States has given to world culture.”
What initially inspired you to want to become a singer?
“It was actually my Italian-American family who inspired to me to become a performer. My father passed away when I was 10, and my mom was left on her own with three children to raise. Every Sunday, my entire family would come over, and we would have a meal together. And then they would form a circle, and my brother, sister, and I would entertain them. My family gave me such encouragement that it was during those Sundays that I realized I wanted to be an entertainer.”
I recently watched the Amy Winehouse documentary, AMY, and I continue to marvel at the way you encouraged Amy when she felt she wasn’t getting it right at first for your “Body and Soul” duet. Looking back on that session, are you pleased with the final result? Do you still feel Amy was one of the greatest young blues singers we’ve ever had?
“Absolutely. Amy Winehouse was an authentic jazz singer in the style of Billie Holiday, and working with her on ‘Body and Soul’ was an extraordinary experience — watching her phrase and rephrase every single line. She was one of a kind, and it is so tragic that she passed on so young. I was looking forward to watching her continue to grow as an artist, and work with her as well.”
photo courtesy of filmmaker magazine
Tony Bennett calls the late Amy Winehouse “an authentic jazz singer in the style of Billie Holiday.”
Your daughter Antonia is joining you for these shows, and she’s also a wonderful singer in her own right. How much do you love performing with her?
“It’s been truly wonderful to have Antonia on the road with me for the last several years. She lives out on the West Coast, so this allows us to see each other regularly. She has developed into an excellent jazz singer and performer.”
Is there any artist you never had the chance to sing with who remains on your collaboration wish list?
“Well, I would have loved to have sung with Louis Armstrong. We were good friends, as he lived in Queens where I was born. Although there was one occasion we were performing on the same bill at a show in [Washington] D.C., we never sang together that night. I would have loved to have had the chance to perform with Louis. He taught us all how to sing.”
You’re turning 90 in August. How do you remain so young and so vibrant? What advice would you give for people half your age — or even younger! — for how to maintain a consistently positive outlook like you display every time we see you?
“You hit the nail on the head when you used the word ‘positive.’ I learned that stress and negativity is a killer, so I strive every day to just look forward to each day, try to learn something new, and to appreciate each day of life, which is truly a gift.”
Tony Bennett, 8 p.m., Jan. 16 at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84-245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio, 800-827-2946, www.fantasyspringsresort.com
7 p.m., Jan. 17 at Pechanga Resort Casino, 45000 Pechanga Parkway, Temecula, 877-711-2946; www.pechanga.com