Tony Bennett Shares Some Of His Favorite Collaborations & The Secret To His Timeless Success

Tony Bennett has been one of the most recognizable names (and voices) in American music for nearly seven legendary decades crooning beloved jazz favorites like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” “I Wanna Be Around” and “The Good Life.”

With numerous awards to his credit celebrating his impressive music career (including 19 Grammys, a Grammy Lifetime Award, United Nations Citizen of the World, Kennedy Center Honoree and Library of Congress Gershwin Prize winner, to name just a few), some may not realize Bennett is also a talented painter (the United Nations even commissioned him for two paintings, and three pieces of his art are now part of the Smithsonian Museum’s permanent collections).  On November 4, The Art Students League of New York will host a gala to honor Bennett, who will accept The Everett Raymond Kinstler Lifetime Achievement Award

We caught up with the 93-year-old legend to find out the secret to his timeless success, who have been some of his favorite collaborations and how it feels having a dance program featuring his music as part of the fall season for American Ballet Theatre.

Photo Credit: Larry Busacca

What do you think has been the secret to your timeless success as an artist?

When I first started out with Columbia in 1950, my premise has always been to create a “hit catalog” and not just chase after novelty songs that might hit it big for a few weeks and then be instantly forgotten.  I learned from my mother to value quality as she was a seamstress and would bring dresses home to make extra money and I would sit on the floor while she worked.  Every once in a while, she would throw a dress over her shoulder and say, “I won’t work on a bad dress!”  So, I think at an early age I took that to heart and strived to record and perform only the best popular music.

You and your siblings grew up during the Great Depression to a single mother after your father passed away at a young age. How old were you when you realized you wanted to pursue a career in music?

Yes, tragically, my father died when I was about 10 years old and my mother had to support three children on her own.  My Italian-American family would support her by coming to our house every Sunday and we would have a big meal in the afternoon and then my aunts and uncles would form a circle and my brother, sister and I would entertain them.  I remember being so excited all week waiting for Sunday so I could perform for them as they gave me so much love and encouragement.  I didn’t realize it until years later, but it was during that time growing up that I decided and wanted to become an entertainer and make people happy.

Your impressive career spans nearly seven decades and you have worked with some of the best musicians in the industry. Which collaboration would you say has been your favorite?

Well, that is very hard to say as I cherish singing with Judy Garland and recording with jazz piano genius Bill Evans, so it amazes me that decades later I ended up in the studio with Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga.  Each one meant so much to me as it was always about proper involvement and making it authentic.  In the end, it shows how beloved the Great American Songbook is that so many artists came along to perform these songs with me.  That was my hope when we started the DUETS albums that the fans of these younger artists would fall in love with this music – it was always about introducing these songs to a new generation.

Photo Credit: Mark Seliger

What is your favorite song to perform live onstage?

Without a doubt, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” as it’s been a wonderful signature song throughout most of my career and I get asked to perform it around the world.  It really made me a global citizen after that song was recorded so I always include it in my shows.  And no matter where I am outside of the US, the audience knows all the words and sings along. It’s always a very special moment on stage when that song is performed.

Is there any musician you would still like to work with who you haven’t had the opportunity to yet?

Another of my most favorite duet partners is Stevie Wonder and I remember when we were in the studio to record “For Once In My Life “ for DUETS we had some down time as they were setting things up.  Stevie was at the piano and all of a sudden he starts playing this incredible jazz piano – strictly off the cuff – and I told him he reminded me of Oscar Peterson. I still would love to do a jazz album with Stevie.  He is an absolute genius.

How special has it been to take the stage with your daughter, Antonia, who also attended Berklee College of music here in Boston?

I love the fact that my family is involved in my career.  My son Danny is my manager and my other son Dae produces all my records and a few years back Antonia started to go on the road with me and it was a full circle as when she was little she would join me on stage and sing.  She got such incredible training at Berklee College of Music and she has developed into a wonderful jazz singer.

Photo Credit: Mark Seliger

Speaking of New England, you will be coming here this month for a few shows. Any favorite places you like to visit when you are in town?

First and foremost, I love the natural beauty of New England so I always look forward to being in the area. It’s one of the most magnificent areas of our country and the audiences are always very enthusiastic. My favorite area in Boston is to stay in the Boston Common so we usually visit there when in town.  And, of course, there are so many great Italian restaurants in the North End.

How does it also feel to have a dance program featuring your music premiering on October 16 as part of the fall season for American Ballet Theatre at the Koch Theater?

I am thrilled as it’s a totally new experience for me to have my music as part of the dance program of such a prestigious company as ABT. I am looking forward to going to the opening night event.  Lincoln Center is just a few blocks away from where I live and it’s still hard to believe that a kid from Astoria would be part of a dance event.  I can hardly believe it and can’t wait to see it performed.