Is there anybody hotter-or cooler-than Tony Bennett? Now 75, he maintains a performing schedule that would make a 20-year-old faint. He has a new record ("Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues") that hit gold within a few short weeks of its release, and is one of few stars of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to successfully bridge the generation gap to appeal to music lovers of all ages in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond. He turns up at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for two performances, March 9 and 10; we spoke with him about his long careers as both singer and painter.
Q. I know it’s a dangerous question, since you just put out a duet album, but who are some of the singers you most admire today?
A. Shirley Horne, Sting, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones, Natalie Cole, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall.
Q. Any singers from earlier times you feel were underrated?
A. Oh, yes . Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Doris Day. They were famous, but they weren’t recognized as ultimate singers.
Q. What makes an ultimate singer?
A. God. k.d. lang has that gift.
Q. With this album, you used a one-take live studio approach. Is that the way you’ve always worked?
A. Oh, yes. I started in the days when all the recording companies were in an economic crisis, and so they were very economical about how to make a record. You’d be forced to do four songs in three-and-a-half hours. You had to be very well prepared ahead, and that’s always been my technique. It’s the closest to live performing you can get.
A lot of times I’ll break something in on the road before I record it, get input from the audience as to how they like it. A song might start out as a ballad and then I might turn it into a rhythm song.
Q. How do you stay in such great shape, vocally and otherwise?
A. I really don’t have that much of a problem. I’m very spirited, very passionate, and that helps. As Sinatra taught me years ago, no matter what happens, keep your energy up on stage. I really practice enough, and I always study three new songs, all the time. I perform more than any other singer, just about, traveling all over the world to all sorts of places-Beijing, Malaysia, Finland.
Q. What’s the audience response like in those places?
A. They know the traditional songs of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s-songs from Astaire and Sinatra-more than the contemporary ones. The songs that are marketed today I can take or leave. They’re obsolescent songs; the companies want to make money fast. But songs like "They Can’t Take That Away From Me" or "A Foggy Day," anything by Duke Ellington-they’ll always be around.
Q. Most people probably know that you paint, under your real name, Anthony Benedetto. It’s lucky you’ve never had to make a choice between painting and singing.
A. I’m blessed with the fact that I’ve always known what I wanted to do-sing and paint. I just keep studying both music and painting.
Q. What are the rewards of each?
A. With performing, being in front of a lot of people all the time, you’re getting involved with everyone from management to stagehands to make it work. But with painting, it’s really you and a blank canvas. Before our conversation today, I’d spent about four or five hours painting, and it felt like five minutes. It’s very meditative, very Zen-like.
With painting, you concentrate so much, on values, on composition, you haven’t got time to think about anything else. It’s a whole world. As a result of the intensity of my performances, and with the new album and all, it’s a tremendous relief to paint. It creates a sanity in me. When I travel, I take my paints and watercolors with me, and if I’m two days in one town I get out and find some beautiful scenery.
Q. What painters do you especially admire?
A. I’ve been going through the Metropolitan Museum my whole life and still haven’t seen everything in it, but Rembrandt, Velazquez, John Singer Sargent-they inspire me. I love Matisse and the Impressionists, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Degas. The reason I like painting so much is you fall in love with nature while you’re doing it, with life, with people and the way the light hits them. It becomes magical. And the more you work hard to see it and discover new things, it’s astounding and marvelous.
Q. What else do you do when not performing?
A: I play a lot of tennis. I just have a lot of fun doing the things I love, and so far I’m getting away with it.
I love my profession; it helps make people forget their problems. All the stuff before you go onstage-your lines, the lights, etc.-that’s work. But once you’re onstage, it’s just a love affair with the audience.