Interview: Tony Bennett

Two weeks ago, I had an opportunity to catch up with Tony Bennett in advance of his upcoming Radio City Music Hall concert in New York on Oct. 6.

The venue is Tony’s favorite, and he’s performed there dozens of times over the past seven decades. Talking to Tony is always a joy. His speaking voice is so lyrical and warm. During his replies, I often find myself listening as intently to the sound of his words as to what he’s saying. It’s like interviewing a musical instrument. [Photo above courtesy of Tony Bennett]
Radio City (c) by Marc Myers
At Radio City, Tony’s daughter, singer Antonia Bennett, will open for him. Then Tony will appear with his quartet—Tom Ranier on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones on drums. For more information and tickets, go here. [Photo above by Marc Myers]

From your perspective on stage at Radio City, what’s so special about that venue?
Tony Bennett: It seats around 6,000, which is perfect for me and my voice. The hall is big but it somehow remains intimate. When I go out to perform, I find the sound is very alive. Even if I whisper, somehow everyone in the audience can hear what I’m singing. It’s magical. [Photo view from the stage at Radio City, courtesy of Radio City Music Hall]

Before you perform, do you work out different approaches to song passages and endings?
TB: I don’t plan any of it. Any deviation from a song’s melody is improvised at the last second. I just follow my instincts based on the audience’s reactions up until that point. Mostly everyone there knows the melodies of the American songbook songs I’m singing. So when I vary notes or a series of notes, it catches them off-guard and they’re delighted. It’s another way to entertain them.

How do you know when to do this?
TB: I listen to the audience and feel their enthusiasm. Then I go along with that. I feel their spirit. I’m reacting to what’s happening out there, and that’s how the show becomes reality. Once I know the audience is enjoying me, that they love what I’m doing, I’ll do something different in response. It’s almost as if we’re having a conversation in the dark.

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You were close to pianist Bill Evans in the 1970s, when you recorded two albums together and appeared on TV. Is there something Evans told you about jazz that you never forgot?
TB: About eight months after we finished our second album (Together Again, in 1977), I was appearing in the Midwest somewhere. Bill called me at my hotel or in the green room. I forget. I was shocked. I said, “How did you find me?” Bill said, “Through your agent.” I said, “What did you want to tell me?” Bill said, “Just go with truth and beauty tonight, and leave it at that.” I was stunned. What a thing to say. I said, “Whatever you say for me to do, Bill, I’m going to do.” I followed Bill’s advice and thought of his words throughout the concert. I still think of what he said on the phone that night before I go on.

For me, the Columbia album in the ’60s that sounds most like you—meaning, you at your most relaxed and completely in love with what you’re singing—is The Movie Song Album, which you recorded in 1966.
TB: That’s funny you should say that. I agree. During my first 10 years recording at Columbia, they always presented a producer who insisted I do certain songs that they wanted to promote for one reason or another. I always fought them on the songs I disliked. In the mid-’60s, I finally decided I wanted to record an album with a compromise, to just follow my instincts. The Movie Song Album was the first album that featured only songs I wanted to do.

You chose all the songs?
TB: Yes, all of them. I still love that album—Maybe September, Girl Talk, Emily, The Pawnbroker. The songs I’m mentioning aren’t just songs. I’ve always tried to record definitive versions of songs, and in this case, I feel I accomplished that goal on all of them. There wasn’t a moment on that recording session that I didn’t believe in what I was singing or the arrangements and pacing. Listen to The Shadow of your Smile, The Second Time Around and Days of Wine and Roses. It was the first time I bucked them on what they wanted me to do and told them what I wanted to sing. Later in the 1960s, I couldn’t believe what they were trying to get me to record. I finally picked up my suitcases and moved to Britain.

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What’s one thing you still tell yourself before you go out to sing?
TB: Know when to get off. You can’t stay out there too long. You have to be aware when you’ve done enough. That often happens at the high point of an audience’s reaction during the evening. When I hear that moment, I often say to myself, “I can’t get a stronger reaction than this.” I usually leave soon after, on that high note.

JazzWax clips: Here’s David Rose’s arrangement of Never Too Late for Tony’s The Movie Song Album

Here’s Tony, with pianist Bill Charlap, singing Just the Way You Look Tonight from their Grammy-winning album, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern

And here’s Tony with Bill Evans on TV in 1977…