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Secrets to Tony Bennett’s Success

What keeps the crooner going? Loving his job, and painting

By Robert Faires, 10:30AM, Thu. Jan. 16

We know what he left in San Francisco, but what will he leave in Austin?
We know what he left in San Francisco, but what will he leave in Austin?

Anyone who's still going strong after 63 years in show biz must have a good reason. Clearly, Tony Bennett does, as will be evident to anyone who catches his return to Austin this Saturday with daughter Antonia, an accomplished jazz vocalist in her own right, sharing the Dell Hall stage: He simply loves his job, and it shows in every song he sings.

Of course, that's been the case since his first No. 1 hit, "Because of You," in 1951 – a claim you can verify on the upcoming Sony Legacy release, Tony Bennett: The Classics, a complication disc for which the singer himself chose the tracks. (It hits stores Jan. 28.)

But loving your job can only take you so far when you're in your seventh decade of performing. What tricks does this champion of the Great American Songbook have for keeping him going? Well, Bennett likes to credit his bel canto technique for maintaining his supple delivery and his wife Susan for making him eat right and stay fit. And there's his painting, which has been a major creative pursuit of his ever since Duke Ellington encouraged him. “Don't do one thing, do two,” advised Duke, and your art and music will feed each other. Bennett elaborated by email.

Tony Bennett: Duke gave me excellent advice. He would always see me sketching, and he encouraged me to really pursue painting seriously.

The relationship between painting and performing is really a yin/yang scenario. When I am performing, it's a very gregarious undertaking in front of an audience, and you have to connect with them, but when I paint, it is just me and my canvas and it's very introspective – I can paint for four hours, and it will seem like four minutes. The beauty of doing two creative activities is you can always stay in a creative zone: If I feel a bit burned out from singing, then I paint; and if I need to stop painting, then I sing. But either way, I am always doing something creative.

Austin Chronicle: When you approach a song that you haven't sung before, do you ever "sketch it out" the way you would a painting?

TB: There are similarities with music and art as it's always a balance between what to leave out and what to leave in - will this be a more subtle approach or something very vibrant? With a song, I usually like to find a lyric that I can connect to and hopefully communicate what the songwriter had in mind as well. All art is communication, and I like to present truth and beauty, whether in my music or in my painting.

AC: The right words make such a difference when you're trying to give a song everything you've got, and the lyricists of the Great American Songbook seemed especially skilled at knowing just where to place those open vowels and just which consonants to fit where to make it easier for the singer to get a song off the ground. Is there one of those lyricists you find a particularly good friend to the singer, someone who uses the words in a way that gives you that extra lift when you sing?

TB: I don't know that I have ever thought of it that way, as I tend to pay attention to the overall lyric and I might find a word that I feel I want to emphasize, so I think it's in the overall song - the lyric and the melody – that I find my inspiration.

AC: I recently interviewed Barbara Cook, who told me that she believes she is a better singer than she was five years ago and will be an even better singer five years from now. Do you feel that you're continuing to evolve as a singer, and if so, how are you growing?

TB: I would love to keep on singing until I am 100, and right now I feel that I can just keep going. I have a wonderful wife, Susan, who makes sure I exercise and eat properly so I stay in good shape. And I was fortunate enough when I returned to the U.S. after serving in WWII to study at the American Theatre Wing under the G.I. Bill of Rights. I had a wonderful teacher who introduced me to the bel canto technique, which has been essential to keep my voice in shape over the years. I think if you keep up your passion for something – no matter what it is – then you can keep doing it for many years. You just need to avoid stress and stay positive.

AC: Your daughter Antonia is joining you for this appearance. She's said in interviews that were always very encouraging about her pursuit of the arts but that going into the music business was another matter. What did you say to her about life as a musician? Did you have any advice for her?

TB: I love having Antonia on the road with me as she is an excellent singer and a beautiful person inside and out. Actually, she would join me onstage when she was just 7 or 8 years old and sing, and she has always been very comfortable with performing. And we tour in a very civilized fashion, playing in nice concert halls, so it's a very nice way to tour.

AC: She's doing quite well for herself and making her own niche as a jazz singer. Given your knowledge of the Great American Songbook and ear for great singing, have you ever recommended a song as being well-suited to her voice and style?

TB: She is such a good musicologist, and she studied at the Berklee College of Music, and she has been paying attention all her life to the Great American Songbook, so she really knows what it's about, but I will suggest to her from time to time that I think a certain song would be a good one for her.

AC: You've sung with just about everyone, from the great jazz singers of yesteryear to the pop sensations of today. Is there anyone in particular, past or present, that you especially like to put on the turntable when you listen to music?

TB: I fell in love with jazz as a teenager, and it's still my favorite, so when I paint I like to listen to jazz most often – but I like classical music as well. You mentioned duets, and I have to say that I would have loved to have had the opportunity to perform with Louis Armstrong. We were on the same bill one night for a private event, but we did not sing together, so that would have been a thrill for me if we had. Louis taught us all how to sing.

Tony Bennett performs Saturday, Jan. 18, 8pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 512/474-5664 or visit www.thelongcenter.org.

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