At 90, Bennett loves doing what he is doing

Tony Bennett at his 90th birthday celebration held at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York on Dec 1. He has sold 10 million recordings in his ninth decade alone.
Tony Bennett at his 90th birthday celebration held at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York on Dec 1. He has sold 10 million recordings in his ninth decade alone.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Early on Thanksgiving morning, singer Tony Bennett woke up in a strange bed on the wrong side of Central Park.

For years, he has lived with his third wife in a Trump building on Central Park South, but the couple spent the night in a Madison Avenue hotel to avoid the security gridlock surrounding the staging areas of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which, like Bennett, turned 90 this year.

This day, about 70 years into a career that began as a singing waiter in Astoria, Queens, he would be riding on the penultimate parade float - taking second billing only to Santa and his sleigh - and singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town with Miss Piggy.

While his live performance with a Muppet would not be a career highlight, a stumble as the float lurched back into motion and a steadying hug from the famous pig would go viral and punctuate a year when it already seemed like all Tony, all the time.

Bennett began this year by winning his 19th Grammy. The Empire State Building was lit in his honour, the switch thrown by his seemingly unlikely buddy and recording partner Lady Gaga. HarperCollins released a new book of his reminiscences of important people in his life.

And tomorrow, NBC will broadcast a two-hour prime-time special commemorating his birthday.

"I can't believe that all this is happening," he said. "I'm 90."

Since NBC broadcast the last Bob Hope special in 1996, when the comedian was 93, prime-time network television has hardly been welcoming country for old men.

Mr Doug Vaughan, the executive vice-president for special programmes and late night at NBC, said: "Not that every 90-year-old doesn't deserve marking that milestone, but Tony is such an icon and such a beloved American legend" that giving him a big block of prime time was not a difficult decision.

It did not hurt that his last NBC special, for his 80th birthday, won seven Emmy Awards.

Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet To Come is built around a September concert at Radio City Music Hall that featured singers such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Buble, Leslie Odom Jr. and Lady Gaga saluting him. Taped performances came in from Billy Joel, Elton John and Bob Dylan. There are interview segments with Bennett scattered in and a show-within- a-show comedy sketch starring Alec Baldwin, who reprises his Saturday Night Live impersonation of a blithely clueless and hyper- ebullient Tony Bennett.

Baldwin said that the key to capturing Bennett, beyond the caricature, was portraying "a guy for whom there are no bumps in the road".

"The thing about this guy," Baldwin said, "is that he's so positive - if I were as talented as him, I'd be positive, too - and so old-school, meaning the lesson you get under everything Tony does is that performing should be fun."

Indeed, it seems fun to be Tony Bennett. In public, his vocabulary is dominated by three exclamations: great, wow and fantastic, the last of which he proclaims with a strong punch to the second syllable. And those words seem fitting, given his thrill ride of a career.

Beginning with a No. 1 recording of Because Of You in 1951, he crooned through a decade of hits with sometimes marginal material, culminating in the international bestseller I Left My Heart In San Francisco in 1962. Threatened with sinking into casino-act irrelevance over the next two decades, and at one point struggling with drug and alcohol problems, he sharpened his artistic focus, concentrating on American Songbook standards.

Aided by his son Danny, who became his manager in 1979, Bennett climbed back into pop culture consciousness through the 1980s and reached a new demographic- defying pinnacle with a 1994 MTV Unplugged recording.

In his ninth decade alone, he has sold 10 million recordings, including two best-selling albums of duets with myriad other singers. Two years ago, he became the oldest performer to have a No. 1 album, when he paired with Lady Gaga on the standards-only recording Cheek To Cheek. He has pulled off the neat trick of constant career rejuvenation while staying exactly the same.

"I could have retired 16 years ago," he said one night last month, "but I just love what I'm doing."

Right then, he had sat down for dinner in the theatre district at the traditional early-bird hour of 5pm. In his case, the reservation was necessary because he was booked at the nearby City Stages auditorium at 7pm, sitting for a public interview about his new book, Just Getting Started.

There is also a new album from Sony that collects the performances from his NBC special, with a deluxe three-disc set available that contains a selection of rare recordings from his archive.

"We're sold out everywhere I'm playing," Bennett said. "The audiences are going crazy for the show. They know that I'm 90 and I'm in top shape. I'm getting five or six standing ovations a night."

During dinner, he repeated himself occasionally. "I forgot what I was saying," he admitted more than once and apologised.

Later, being interviewed about his life in front of a large and appreciative crowd at City Stages, he did not remember a primary anecdote that appears in his book about how he had met his current wife, Susan Benedetto - she took her husband's birth name - a 50-year-old former high school teacher.

She was invited backstage when she was 19 and president of the San Francisco Tony Bennett fan club. They married in 2007.

But while there are signs of age, Bennett also displays a voracious curiosity. "I still insist that I can get better as I go along," he said.

He recently started learning jazz piano with Bill Charlap, his accompanist on the record The Silver Lining, a collection of Jerome Kern songs that won him his latest Grammy. He got his first in 1962.

Even after the blitz of performances and products tied to his extended birthday celebration, he plans to keep working. He has 30 dates on his schedule for the first half of next year and is thinking of recording a new album dedicated to the songs of husband-and-wife songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

"Tony's all about moving forward," Danny said. "He tells me, 'Hey, as long as my voice doesn't wobble and people like me, I'm going to keep singing until I die.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'At 90, Bennett loves doing what he is doing'. Print Edition | Subscribe