After a Decade Off the Records and on the Road, Tony Bennett Makes His Richest Disc Ever

updated 06/23/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/23/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"Man, I want to be an official girl watcher," Tony Bennett says in his cobwebbed voice as a blonde in a sleeveless blouse glides past his table. He cocks his Gibraltar chin and smiles. As it happens, there's no getting to or from the ladies' room at Manhattan's new Caffe Roma without passing this banquette. Every so often the great singer's pale blue-green eyes twinkle as the parade of women continues. Laughing, he mentions a famous jazz pianist. "He's funny," Bennett says. "When he gets a girl he looks up at the ceiling and says, 'I don't know what I did to deserve this, but thank you, Lord!' "

There's really no leer here. Bennett is simply a 59-year-old Everything delights him: The seafood salad is "fantastic;" the dappled, blue brick wall facing his table reminds him of Monet's Water Lillies.

"I have to tell you," he is saying, "the art schools are just bulging. It's like Picasso's dream, that the next stage of human development is where everybody is an artist, doing something they love. I think the end of the '80s is really going to get good, boy. Look at the way people dress. There's a new sense of humor. Look at these beautiful new restaurants that have opened, taking from the old and tying it to something that's new. Good signs, I'm seeing good signs."

During this monologue, Bennett's son Danny is sitting across from him, smiling. When Danny, 33, and his brother, Daegal, 31, were teenagers, they had a band called Quacky Duck. Danny remembers, "We were rock 'n' rollers. Anything we wanted to do, Dad was always very supportive." Danny and Daegal later had another band called Neon, but for the last seven years they have devoted the bulk of their time to managing their father's career.

They're not doing badly. Bennett has just released his first album in nearly a decade, The Art of Excellence, on Columbia, the label that dumped him in 1971 after a partnership of 21 years and 88 albums, and it's superb. A few days after the dinner at Caffe Roma, Bennett played Radio City Music Hall for the first time in his career. Thanks to his sons, his alternate life as a painter is also thriving. He exhibits his work in galleries almost everywhere he sings, and last year he missed only a half dozen or so states. Cary Grant bought a Benedetto last year (Bennett, whose stage name was bestowed on him by Bob Hope in 1950, signs his real name to his canvases), and so did a collector in Cleveland, signing a check for $25,000.

"I'm having the best spring I've ever had," Bennett says. "I wake up feeling so good every day now. It's like I'm starting a new career."

Not so long ago, Bennett was singing a different tune. In 1979 his second marriage ended after producing two daughters, Joanna, now 16, and Antonia, 12. The divorce more or less coincided with a trough in his career, creatively if not remuneratively. Typecast as earwash for the cummerbund set, Bennett found himself playing Vegas 18 weeks a year. Once asked if he ever tired of singing his signature hit, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, he replied, "Do you ever get tired of making love?" But feeling "numbsy, like a punch-drunk fighter" from grinding out two shows a night in the unvarying Vegas format, "I began questioning what I was doing. Big rock groups were filling Madison Square Garden. People were saying my kind of music was out. But then Danny and Daegal swooped in and said, 'Hey, Dad, you're an apple. Why change an apple?' They had heard me saying I like to give concerts. Before I knew it, I was just giving concerts. I had been tending to all kinds of business details. But they cleared the decks, so now I just paint and sing. It's like that famous phrase, 'Free at last.' "

It's not coincidence that he should quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965 Bennett was one of the celebrities who joined King on his historic march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, Ga. In rainy Selma, in the middle of the night, Bennett remembers singing on a makeshift stage fashioned from the only materials available, a load of coffins donated by an undertaker.

By all accounts Bennett has always been a person of ideals and compassion. As an Army corporal in Germany at the end of World War II, he invited a black soldier—a friend he had known at the High School of Industrial Art in Manhattan—to have Thanksgiving dinner with him. A Southern lieutenant upbraided Benedetto for bringing a black into the dining room and ordered them to eat in the kitchen. When Benedetto refused to comply and walked out with his friend, the officer pursued them, ripped off the corporal's stripes, threw them on the floor and spat on them. Then he reassigned the stunned soldier to the odious task of collecting and identifying soldiers' bodies. In the early '50s Bennett and a friend went to visit a jazz trumpeter whose wife had just had a baby. According to the friend, the horn player was "scuffling" for work, and Bennett surreptitiously slipped a hundred-dollar bill into the infant's crib.

Bennett doesn't volunteer these stories, but they're consistent with his philosophy. For many years he has actively aided the United Way. "Really, we're all in this together," he says. "If you're just doing for yourself, a greed sets in and you're always unhappy. If you help somebody else, you still make a living, but you hit the pillow at night and you feel good.

"When I was coming up," he adds, "performers like Bob Hope and Jan Murray and Joe E. Lewis were nice enough to give us some seasoning. And one of the things they taught us was, 'Make friends with the workers before the bosses.' So I made it a habit, whoever knocked on my dressing-room door, if they were decent people I sat down and talked to them."

Last year Danny Bennett was working in the family business office on the ninth floor of a Midtown Manhattan apartment building when he got a "desperate" phone call from his father, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the 12th floor. "He said, 'I have to see you now,' " Danny recalls. "I thought something was really wrong. I went running upstairs. He says, 'I finally got it. Now I know how to sing.' "

What the revelation was not even Tony can say. Asked about it recently, he responded with a long, contemplative, "Hmmm." Bennett is so relaxed he exudes a warm, slippered contentment, like a man sitting before some invisible hearth. After a silence, he said, "Maybe I was looking for something for a long time and I found it. There's so many aspects to singing, you never really learn the whole thing. That's the joy of it." Bennett practices scales for 20 minutes, three times a day, every day. Ralph Sharon, his long-time accompanist, says, "I've worked with a lot of singers, and I've never seen anybody as determined to practice his art. It's a religion with him."

"My teachers, when I was young, taught me how to save my voice," Bennett explains. "Most singers peak out when they're around 35. But I have this ambition to actually sing better as I get older." That Bennett is succeeding superbly is attested to by no less an authority than Ray Charles, who duets with him on James Taylor's Everybody Has the Blues on the new album. Says Brother Ray, "There are just a few male singers in this world who I feel can sing forever—Perry Como, Sinatra, if he wants to, and Tony Bennett. Tony has such an even flow of all his notes, and they're so effortlessly produced. He's always had the tools, but his maturity is that what he thinks of, he can do easier now. I'm happy he's recording again, because it's always good to listen to goodness."

Pearl Bailey once gave Tony some advice on handling praise. Billing himself as Joe Bari, he was singing in her revue in Greenwich Village in 1950 when Bob Hope came by, listened and invited the youngster to sing with him at the Paramount Theatre. Said Pearl in a valedictory before Tony left, "You're going to have a lot of success, but don't let that helium hit your brain and make you fly away from us. Keep your feet on the ground."

Though Bennett ran off a string of crooning hits beginning with Boulevard of Broken Dreams in 1950, the really intoxicating helium didn't hit him until the '60s. It started when Sinatra, writing in LIFE in 1965, described Bennett as "the best singer in the business...He's the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind and probably a little more." In 1968 Judy Garland described Bennett as "the epitome of what entertainers were put on Earth for. He was born to take people's troubles away, even for an hour." The assessment was part of a 40-page Billboard salute to Bennett's first 20 years in show business and more than 30 artists contributed, including Fred Astaire, Barbra Streisand and Harold Arlen. Significantly, most of the saluters were jazz musicians: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, the Count and the Duke, among others. Bennett has always been one of their own.

"I had always been a laid-back singer," Bennett says of that period, "but suddenly I had to live up to these accolades. I ended up trying too hard. It became a little forced, a little hammy. Finally I said, 'Let me just come out and sing and be myself.' Soon as I did that, it started working again."

Bennett spends about 40 weeks a year on the road, and when he isn't singing or playing tennis he steps out with his sketchbook. "He'll go into a pizza parlor wherever he is, and people will call out, 'Hi, Tony!' " says Ralph Sharon. Bennett's road pals also include a number of curators and security guards at art museums around the country. They often let him in after hours, and he likes to wander with them, listening to them talk and turning his video camera from them to the paintings and back; he picked up the idea of keeping a video diary years ago from his acquaintance Andy Warhol. He is particularly fond of the guards at the Metropolitan in New York, not far from where he went to high school. "At first it's just a job to them," he says. "Then they start looking at all these masterpieces. Sooner or later. no matter how dense you are, you're going to say, 'Wait a minute. Could I do that?' So a lot of them become artists. One's into Chinese painting, another does silk screen, another's a sculptor. I've learned more from the guards than from some of the curators."

Last fall Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet, was introduced to Bennett at a cacophonous birthday party for art dealer Leo Castelli at the Palladium, New York's trendy disco. To their mutual delight they discovered they were both passionate about William Blake and had both composed music to the visionary poet's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Arm in arm as disco music thumped around them, they sang their melodies to each other. "Mine are very simple, but he had a number of chords and a much more modern, syncopated style," admits Ginsberg, who says the two wound up discussing "the aesthetics of performance and the relationship between speech tones and melody. It was an amazing experience. I had no idea he was just a straightforward, quite intelligent guy with strong artistic hobbies and interests. I don't remember any other conversation I've had in the Palladium lasting more than six minutes."

Bennett says he approaches daily life as "a beautiful adventure"—not surprising for a Blake devotee. His childhood predisposed him that way. He grew up in Astoria, Queens in a big Italian family in which "everybody was joyous and felt good about life. They worked hard all week and at the end they took out their instruments and played." Tony's father, a tailor from Calabria who immigrated in 1907, later opened a grocery store at Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street in Manhattan—now the home of Columbia Records. When Tony was 9, his father went into the hospital with appendicitis and never came back. "This was before sulfa drugs," Bennett says, "and he died of the infection. To this day I get a lump in my throat when I think about it. I'm still miffed by it." To ease his mother's burden, Tony was sent to live with distant relatives upstate and the exile lasted nine months. "An eternity to me," Bennett says. "I felt separated, and I resented it because I wanted to be with my mom." He is silent a second. "But things really work out for the best," he adds, his voice brightening. "Because that experience taught me how to adjust to being alone. Now I actually like it. On the road I don't feel I'm missing something by not being rooted."

The road has provided Bennett with a storehouse of gentle anecdotes, which he shares in a casual, homespun way. There's the time Ed Sullivan drew a blank when introducing the Supremes and said, "Here they are...the girls!" There's the time Bennett told Frank Zappa at a cocktail party that he ought to get himself a new jacket, and Zappa replied, "This is a new jacket." ("I didn't know who he was," Bennett explains.) And there's the time Bennett gave a concert at the San Diego Zoo "and all these animals are hooting and screeching. They had a parrot there that sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco. My daughter Antonia comes running backstage and says, 'Daddy! Daddy! Do a duet with him!' "

Despite his penchant for girl watching, Bennett is really an old-fashioned straight arrow. On the sidewalk in front of his apartment building recently, he bumped into Henny Youngman. Henny, on his way to the Carnegie Deli, told Tony a joke. On the subsequent limo ride to NBC, where he was to appear on Late Night With David Letterman, Bennett chuckled over the joke and remarked to his companions, who included a young public relations woman, how "off-color" it was. When a writer present asked what the joke was, Bennett reddened and explained he could never tell it "in mixed company."

It's a tribute to Tony Bennett's gentlemanliness that, in this day and age, just thinking of the following joke—which he later repeated, sotto voce, for the writer—was enough to make him blush.

"This guy says to his wife, 'Why don't you tell me when you're having an orgasm?'

"She says, 'Because you're never here!' "

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