‘The Good Life’ thanks to a good family -- An interview with Tony Bennett

In Tony Bennett’s mind, there are a few key ingredients that make his life a good life. While singing and painting vie for the number two spot in his heart, neither would have been possible without the help of family.

This family bond can be seen on stage these days as Bennett’s daughter Antonia performs with him.

“I’m surrounded by my family,” he says. “I get great inspiration from my wife, Susan. My two sons work with me. My daughter, Johanna, is an actress. My daughter, Antonia, performs with me. Antonia is a very good performer and the audience loves her.”

But it was a rocky road with plenty of ups and downs that led Bennett to the harmonious life he has now.

He was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926. The son of a grocer grew up in Astoria, Queens, N.Y. He lived through the Great Depression and served in World War II. But he says it was thanks to his family that the tough times weren’t tougher.

Little Anthony made a name for himself early on as a singer. In 1936, he earned a high profile gig performing for Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at the opening of the Triborough Bridge. He was only 10 years old.

That same year, illness took his father away from him.

His mom became a seamstress to keep money coming into the household.

At 16, Bennett dropped out of high school so he could work full-time and help his mom support the family.

Thanks to extended family banding together, Bennett has plenty of warm memories from those hard times.  Weekly family pot luck dinners were greatly appreciated.

“We couldn’t wait until Sunday to be with all the relatives,” he told AARP magazine. “It was a warm and wonderful feeling. I realized, this is natural, the way it’s supposed to be. There was never a touch of loneliness, never a thought of what’s going to happen to me? It’s funny that, in the middle of deep poverty, it was the warmest time of my life.”

In 1944, Bennett was drafted into the Army. World War II’s Battle of  the Bulge was yet another rough patch for Bennett. But fate had something else in store for him. As the bombs were falling around Bennett, superiors called for a retreat. He thought he was retreating to save his life. In reality, his superiors pulled him from the front lines for a little rest and regrouping at a Bob Hope show.

Bennett was one of the GIs who got to sing on stage during that show. It was another moment in time that stood out in his mind. But it wasn’t until after the war that Bennett would make an impression on Hope.

In 1950, Hope had come to see Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village. Bennett was also on the bill. At that point, Hope was so impressed with Bennett that he put him into his stage show. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Bennett said that it was Hope’s suggestion that he change his stage name to Tony Bennett.

The fifties were an exciting time for Bennett. In 1951, he had his first hit, “Because of You.” The hits kept coming with “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Rags to Riches,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” and “Cinnamon Sinner.”

Hope helped him get underway, but there was yet another famous entertainer that watched over him.  In the 50s, after a string of hits, Bennett used his star status to go back stage and meet a singer he adored, Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra had a reputation as being tough and unapproachable, but he took a shine to Bennett. He virtually took Bennett under his wing. The advice Sinatra gave him guides Bennett to this day.

Over the years, Sinatra lobbied for Bennett and sent his own fans to Bennett’s shows. He put fans in the seats, as Bennett says. As far as the advice Sinatra gave him: choose good songs, Sinatra said, and if you’re nervous, let that be your bond with your audience.

If you’re nervous, that means you care and if the audience sees you care, they’ll root for you, Sinatra told Bennett.

What makes for a good song?

“A good song has to have a perfect melody with good harmony, and very intelligent lyrics,” Bennett says.

But, in his estimation, there aren’t too many of those being written today.

“Most current songs are forgettable. They are hyped by big corporations that say these new songs are better but within 4-5 weeks the songs are completely forgotten,” he says. “Years ago the audience told radio stations what to play and the record companies would service them, but that is not true today.”

If anyone could tell the difference between what’s a fad and what is quality, it would have to be Bennett. He has remained a viable commercial artist for more than six decades. His own work has fallen in and out of favor over that span, but he’s always managed to bounce back.

In the late 70s came Bennett’s nadir. Once again, it  was his family that came to the rescue. The good life had come crashing down around him. The hits had long since stopped flowing. Bennett found himself addicted to drugs and without a record label. Money was getting tight.

He called on his two sons for help. They took the reigns,  managed his career, his money, his band and planned a comeback. It worked like clockwork.

By the middle of the 80s, Bennett was re-signed to Columbia Records and was making guest appearances on hit TV shows. In the 90s, he won over the MTV crowd with his performance on the show “MTV Unplugged.”

In this decade alone he has won five Grammy awards.

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