Six decades of music. Few artists can compete with that kind of musical legacy, and that’s one of the things that makes Tony Bennett’s concert on Tuesday at Rudder Auditorium so special.
Think about it: Bennett’s signature song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, was a hit in 1962. That’s the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game and Johnny Carson starting on The Tonight Show.
All these years later, the 89-year-old is still going strong. His 2014 album with Lady Gaga (Cheek to Cheek) added the 17th Grammy to his trophy case. And his fondness for duets has made for some memorable moments in recent years (See Page D8).
This will be Bennett’s first performance on the Texas A&M campus, which is presented by MSC OPAS. The crooner participated in an email interview for The Eagle.
Your career longevity is remarkable. What motivates you to stay so active with albums and touring?
I have been fortunate that I have two passions in life — singing and painting — and have been able to make a living doing what I love the most. It has been wonderful having two creative outlets, as it keeps you always in a creative zone. Singing and painting have a yin-yang relationship, as singing is a very gregarious enterprise in front of a live audience with musicians and production staff, all working with you to put on a show. But when I paint, it is just myself and the blank canvas, so it’s very quiet and introspective. So if I ever get to a point where I might be a bit burned out from singing, then I set up my paints and canvas. And then when I am done, I am refreshed and ready to sing again, but have always remained in a creative zone.
How did the feeling of your first Grammy win compare to your win in 2015?
It was a huge thrill to receive my first two Grammys for I Left My Heart in San Francisco, but the Grammys was a much more intimate event than it is now. And it doesn’t get much better than attending and performing at the Grammys with Lady Gaga — we always have such a good time together. It was very special to win a Grammy for Cheek to Cheek, as the project was important to us both, and how it reflected our mutual love for jazz and the popular standard.
What songs do you always get a charge out of singing? Are there some that are particularly enjoyable each time?
I tour with a magnificent jazz quartet, and the reason why I have always worked with jazz musicians is that they are masters at their craft. You have to be so competent in what you do to be able to work spontaneously in the jazz genre, and the musicians that tour with me make every song performance different each and every night. We can change things right on stage — put a new song in or change a tempo, just based on the pacing of the show, so the performance stays in the moment. Honestly, I love all the songs that I perform and have recorded over the years — I always strived to get a “hit catalog” rather than to go for a “hit song” that may go big for a few weeks and then gets forgotten.
What do you listen to at home, and do you prefer vinyl to digital?
When I am painting, I usually have the radio on and listen to jazz and classical, and I have all my favorite music on my iPad so I can listen to it when I am traveling. I think what I miss most now that everything is recorded digitally is that there is the ability to take so many things out of a record — the sound of a finger against a guitar string — those kinds of moments that were kept in the mix, to me, made the sound authentic. So it’s really the recording process that changes things, not necessarily how you listen to the music. I met Ira Gershwin once at a publishing company, and he asked the clerk to get him a copy of the sheet music of a song he wanted me to hear. The clerk came back and told us that he didn’t have the sheet music, but he had a recording of the song, and he was so excited to announce that it was in stereo. Gershwin looked at the clerk and said, “Why do I need stereo, I have two ears!”
You’ve performed duets with a huge array of artists. What is it about that kind of collaboration that excites you, especially with young performers?
I think a duet works best when there is a contrast between the two voices, rather than the voices being the same. For me, I loved working on the Duets albums because it provided the opportunity to showcase the Great American Songbook to all the fans of the artists that I collaborated with, who may not be familiar with the songs. And many of the performers enjoyed working the way I record, which is to have all the musicians in the same room. I like to keep the recording as close to a live performance as possible. Many of the artists after working that way told me they wanted to make their next record that way.
What surprised you the most about your work with Lady Gaga?
I first saw Lady Gaga perform at a benefit we were both singing at for the Robin Hood Foundation, and I remember being so impressed with her voice that I went backstage after the event and asked her if she would record on my next record, Duets II, and she immediately said, “Let’s do it!” When we recorded for the first time, The Lady Is a Tramp, after the session was over she went up to each and every person in the studio and thanked them, which I thought showed what a thoughtful and caring person she is — she puts so much thought and effort into everything she does. When we did the recording for Cheek to Cheek, she set up the studio with candles and rugs and made it very intimate. Everything she does is done with great care.