The Key To Zen For Tony Bennett: 'Life Is A Gift'
At 86, legendary singer Tony Bennett says he's at the top of his game and more passionate than ever about his art.
"I want to try to prove that at 100, I could sing as well as I was singing when I was 45 or 43," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "I'd like to prove that if you take care of yourself, you can actually not regret the fact that you've become an old-timer, but you can just still improve and actually get better."
Throughout his 60 years in the recording industry, Bennett has won 17 Grammy Awards, sold millions of records and performed for every American president since Dwight Eisenhower.
In his memoir, Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett, he reflects on his decades in the industry, a lifetime surrounded by family and friends, and why he still practices scales every day.
On why he practices scales every day
"It's based on the vowel sounds A, E, I, O, and by doing that, you just warm up. ... Because every day you really feel quite different. By doing the scales, you get a center, and all of the sudden you feel in control of your voice, where it's relaxed. And it takes about 10 or 15 minutes.
"I don't sing operatically, and I sing very intimately, but I still do the scales, and I think in terms of intonation and making sure that I'm hitting the notes right on the head ... and having it appear quite effortless."
On why he loves analog recordings
"It just had a warm sound ... I tried to find performances on recordings that are as close to reality. When you hear a great two-track of a performance in Carnegie Hall, let's say, it sounds like you're right there at that moment. It's true to reality. And the closer it gets, once it gets too technical, it becomes very tinny to hear notes. It doesn't sound right. It has to be natural. It has to sound just like you're there, and you're in the audience listening to it."
On one special Thanksgiving in his hometown in Queens
"I loved my mom so much because she had to work on a penny just to put food on the table. ... During the Depression in the United States, everybody had a tough time. And I was so hurt because she was crying that she didn't have any food for us for Thanksgiving.
"And I couldn't believe it. And I went to a movie theater, and they were raffling off gifts for Thanksgiving. And I held that ticket, hoping that my number would come in, and a beautiful miracle in my life happened because they called up my number — number four, which is still my lucky number to this day. And they gave me a big turkey, and I walked in the house with a big turkey. And my mom and my brother and sister have never gotten over that, and neither have I. It was just so beautiful."
On advice to aspiring performers
"The commercial shows on television that have amateur contests on singing or performing ... there's a big accent on same. And what I try to tell everybody in my book is that 'same' is a dangerous word. You should think more of longevity and know that it takes years to really become a good performer. Because it's quite dangerous in the sense that once you have something that connects with the public, and your management all the sudden throws a lot of your money into promoting you, and you spend a fortune to get to the top; and then if it's not a real solid performance, there's a big drop, and you're forgotten, and you're bankrupt. And I think it's quite dangerous.
"And performers should really go to the best schools, like Lady Gaga, you know, she went to NYU and had great teachers. ... It's best to really study your technique as much as you possibly can so you can have a long career instead of a quick one that's a failure."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After a career that's spanned six decades so far, after number one hits as far back as "Because of You" in 1951, after performances for every president since Dwight Eisenhower, 17 Grammy Awards, millions of records sold, countless performances in the trademark suit and tie, Tony Bennett continues to surprise us.
In a new book, the man Frank Sinatra described as the best tells us that he's still a nervous a bit before each show, why he practices scales every day and how he's learned what to leave out. Singers, we want to hear from you today. What have you learned from Tony Bennett? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the experiences of a bomb disposal specialist in Iraq. But first Tony Bennett joins us. He has a new book out today called "Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett." He's with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION. Hello, Tony Bennett, are you there?
TONY BENNETT: I am, Neal.
CONAN: Oh, good to hear you.
BENNETT: Thank you very much for that introduction.
CONAN: Oh well, you're most welcome. I have to ask, of course we know you as a great singer. We also learned more about your career as Benedetto, the artist. Did you bring your sketchpad into the studio with you today?
BENNETT: I did, in fact your engineer here, I've sketched him already. I'm going to give him the sketch.
CONAN: Well, we're sorry about your models. We'll hope to get you some better ones soon.
BENNETT: No, he's been good, he's a good model.
CONAN: All right, a lot of people would ask what it is that you get out of your artwork, your sketching and your painting, that you don't get out of your singing.
BENNETT: Well, it's a - many artists end up saying at the end of their life when they've accomplished a lot of work that they were able to find out who they were. That seems to go that way. You finally have a certain amount of penmanship with your style and your technique, and through the years, you keep trying to improve and learn about life.
But when you finally look at it all, you just say oh, that's who I am. And that's why I love doing it.
CONAN: It's interesting, you say much the same about your singing. Toward the end of the book, you say here I am at 86, it's starting to feel all over again when I look at the knowledge that I'd like to acquire I'm studying more now than I studied ever in my life, and I have at least another 10 to 15 years before I accomplish what I want to. What are you continuing to learn after all these years?
BENNETT: Well, I'd like to just show that if you keep your health, and if I get lucky enough to have no accidents happen through the next years, I want to try to prove that at 100, I could sing as well as I was singing when I was 45 or 43. I'd like to prove that if you take care of yourself, you can actually not regret the fact that you've become an old-timer, but you can just still improve and actually get better as you keep - I love what I do, so it's not tiring to me to just try to discover more and more about how to perform properly and how to sing well.
CONAN: The thing you said you do every single day is practice your scales. How come?
BENNETT: Well, that comes from - the Italians invented bel canto, the art of beautiful singing. And it's based on the vowel sounds A, E, I, O, and by doing that, you just warm up, and you just - because every day you really feel quite different. By doing the scales, you get a center, and all of the sudden you feel in control of your voice, where it's relaxed.
And it takes about 10 or 15 minutes. I don't sing operatically, and I sing very intimately, but I still do the scales, and I think in terms of intonation and making sure that I'm hitting the notes right on the head as I - and having it appear quite effortless.
CONAN: Appear quite effortless because it isn't.
BENNETT: Right. It is once you warm up.
CONAN: Good to hear. As you go through these scales, I forget who it is in the book, you cite somebody saying if you don't do them on the first day, you'll hear it; on the second day, the musicians will hear it; and on the third day, the audience will hear it.
BENNETT: Right, that's a very well-known saying.
CONAN: As you go through - in recent years you've been doing so many duets, albums of songs that you perform with, well, in many cases people considerably younger than you, in some cases people who are your contemporaries. But for the most part, I was interested that you were describing the experience of recording with Amy Winehouse, the late British singer, and how she had described in her liner notes, before you ever recorded, about listening to you and how much she had learned from you.
BENNETT: Well, that's very nice to know. She was a wonderful person and a great jazz singer. Of all the contemporary singers I've ever heard, it's just my curiosity to say now who's really doing the right singing, and she was just a natural jazz singer. She had the full facility just to the equivalent of Ella Fitzgerald, the great Ella Fitzgerald. She had a magnificent concept of how to really sing jazz.
CONAN: Did you learn anything from her?
BENNETT: Yeah, I learned to take care of myself even more.
CONAN: Well, there's a lesson you describe also in your book about the number of people you've known down the years, including Amy Winehouse, who, what, sinned against their talent.
BENNETT: Right, and that's what I was doing at one time, and Woody Allen's manager Jack Rollins, he said he used to manage Lenny Bruce, who was a drug addict but was a tremendous social person and brilliant. And I said: What'd you think of him? And he said: He sinned against his talent. And that sentence changed my whole life. I just realized boy, I'm really - I thought I was having fun, but it's not fun at all, and I have to get back to appreciating to take care of myself properly.
CONAN: There is also a sense throughout this book of constant renewal by staying true to what you do all those years. There are new generations that come up and embrace what you do.
BENNETT: Well, that's nice.
CONAN: I think it's true. Look at the record sales.
BENNETT: Right, you know, Rosemary Clooney and I, when we first started out, we had our first million-selling records, and I ran into Jack Benny and George Burns, and they said now son, you're doing good, but, you know, it's really going to take about six years to learn how to perform properly.
And it was a tough one for me to get at that time, and I realized that they were accurate because after six years I felt confident about doing it right. The audiences teach you just what to do and what not to do. And you learn timing and proper involvement with the audience.
CONAN: A lot of young performers don't get that kind of apprenticeship, particularly after their first million-seller.
BENNETT: Well, you know, the commercial shows on television that have amateur contests on singing or performing, and there's a big accent on same. And what I try to tell everybody in my book is that same is a dangerous word. You should think more of longevity and know that it takes years to really become a good performer because it's quite dangerous in the sense that once you have something that connects with the public, and your management all the sudden throws a lot of your money into promoting you, and you spend a fortune to get to the top, and then if it's not a real solid performance, there's a big drop, and you're forgotten, and you're bankrupt. And I think it's quite dangerous.
And performers should really go to the best schools, like Lady Gaga, you know, she went to NYU and had great teachers. There's Berklee College in Boston that's magnificent for musicians and singers to learn how to perform properly. And it's best to really study your technique as much as you possibly can so you can have a long career instead of a quick one that's a failure.
CONAN: We want to hear from the singers in our audience today. What have you learned from Tony Bennett, who's our guest today? His new book is called "Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett," 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And Joy(ph) is on the line with us from Wellesley, Massachusetts.
CONAN: Hi, go ahead, Joy.
JOY: Hi, Mr. Bennett, what an honor to talk to you.
BENNETT: Well, thank you very much.
JOY: Of course, and way to shout out for Berklee, I'm an alum, woo-hoo. But my daughter and I were lucky enough to see a master class that you did at Tanglewood a few summers ago with a singer, I think it was Layla Clair.
JOY: And I wanted to comment on just the ease - because there's such a divide between classical sort of pedagogy and jazz pedagogy. And everything she does is perfect and correct and wonderful, and you were able to give her this ease, this sort of relaxation, which I think is brought from the jazz side of things. And it was really wonderful to watch sort of the multigenerational thing with you and then with Layla and then with my daughter, who was maybe five at the time. And I just wanted to say it was wonderful to watch that, to get to see it in person, and thank you.
BENNETT: Well, I remember that day, and it was a wonderful class. Everybody was so nice to me, and I was thrilled with what happened because it was quite an experience for me also.
CONAN: Joy, did you learn something that day you took away from it?
JOY: Well absolutely, just you have to - even it has to be meticulous, but there has to be an ease. Like he's been talking about the bel canto, making it not look like it's the hard work that it actually is, and just to see firsthand someone that skilled, and for him to be able to transform her in that way, and I could hopefully that and then extrapolate it into my art.
CONAN: Well good luck, Joy, it's not easy to go - be standing on stage and say relax to yourself before you go onstage.
JOY: OK, right, exactly right. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Tony Bennett is with us as our guest. Singers, now your chance to talk with him. What have you learned from Tony Bennett? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Tony Bennett loves a duet.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY IS A TRAMP")
BENNETT: (Singing) She doesn't like crap games with barons and earls.
LADY GAGA: (Singing) Won't go to Harlem in ermine and pearls. And I definitely won't dish out dirt with the rest of those girls.
BENNETT: Thank you. (Singing) That's why the lady is a tramp.
GAGA: I love the free...
CONAN: Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga with the Rodgers and Hart classic "The Lady is a Tramp." In his new memoir, "Life Is a Gift," Bennett sings Gaga's praises, calling her a joy to work with, a professional who's not afraid to be different, someone who will be bigger than - as big as Elvis Presley.
So if you're a singer who's learned something from Tony Bennett, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255 is the number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation online. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
The book, "Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett," his most recent recording, "Viva Duets," and Tony Bennett's with us from our bureau in New York. And as you perform with Lady Gaga, it's so refreshing to hear her voice unprocessed and without all that electronic accompaniment.
BENNETT: It is wonderful. I mean, she has such a good talent. She's so spontaneous, you know, and she's so creative at all times. I've never met any performer that's so talented, very talented person.
CONAN: Have you ever used an autotune, one of those things that brings the singer back into whatever keys supposed to be in?
BENNETT: Never, no.
CONAN: And you write in the book about your favorite medium being the two-track, quarter-inch tape. Why?
BENNETT: Well, it just had a warm sound. I looked at - I tried to find performances on recordings that are as close to reality. When you hear a great two-track of a performance in Carnegie Hall, let's say, it sounds like you're right there at that moment. It's true to reality. And the closer it gets, once it gets too technical, it becomes very tinny to hear notes. It doesn't sound right. It has to be natural. It has to sound just like you're there, and you're in the audience listening to it.
CONAN: You also describe what you call maybe the greatest recording studio ever, that CBS Records had.
BENNETT: That was one of the regrets of my life because it was such a famous studio. Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein and all the greatest composers, and classical and popular artists like Frank Sinatra and all, you know, Rosemary Clooney and so many wonderful people...
CONAN: Bob Dylan, I think, yeah.
BENNETT: A lot of great orchestras like Duke Ellington, and there was one time when Duke Ellington and Count Basie played together, the both bands at one time in that magnificent studio. It's a huge - it was a huge (unintelligible) originally, and they just reconverted it over to a magnificent studio. What a regret that that studio is gone.
CONAN: We're talking with Tony Bennett. We want to hear from singers. What have you learned from Tony Bennett? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And let's see if we can go with Dennis, Dennis with us from Syracuse.
DENNIS: Hi, actually, I'm 53 now, and the first album I ever owned my mother had given to me, and that was "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." And being raised in the '60s and '70s, you know, and I loved rock 'n' roll, but that really was the most formative album for me because every time I listened to Tony sing, it was like I was taking a music lesson because how he was breathing was so evident in every song that he sang.
CONAN: And are you a singer?
DENNIS: Yes, yeah.
CONAN: And do you use those lessons today?
DENNIS: Absolutely, and Tony, you were also saying that you do your scales every day, and I think it's important for people, if they have the ability to do their scales, because it helps them in just speech every day.
BENNETT: Absolutely. You know, you have to have a lot of energy on the stage. And when you warm up like that, you finally - it's a proper exercise to get yourself in shape so that when you perform, it's all there for you, you're ready to go.
DENNIS: ...identify with your own voice also because, you know, more often than not, people when they're singing are doing characterizations of singers that they've heard of, and therefore they're not singing from the diaphragm, they're singing from their throat. And if you do your scales every day, it brings you back into tune with your own voice.
CONAN: It's interesting to me, Tony Bennett, to hear so many people say it's about the breathing. You think about singing, well, it's about the singing. No, it's about the breathing.
BENNETT: Yeah, it's a technique. You know, I was in the Second World War as a GI infantryman. I came back, and I joined the American Theater Wing under the GI Bill of Rights, and it was a great experience because they were so elated that we won the war, and they were so helpful to us. And they - the teachers were so wonderful. They said never compromise, and always do it with quality, whether you're an actor or a singer or a dancer.
If you're in the performing arts, never compromise. Only do quality. And when I went into the regular world, away from school, it changed, you know, and it became - a lot of things because obsolescent, and we're not doing that - I used to run into my students that I learned from at the school, and they said we just had an audition, and we were turned down.
I said, well, I heard you sing, you sound wonderful. He said, well, they said they're not taking wonderful singers anymore.
BENNETT: So I asked Jimmy Durante at the Stage Delicatessen, the great James Durante, and he was having chicken soup, and I sat next to him, and I said, Jimmy, I said what d you think of rock 'n' roll. And he said, well, they play three chords, and two of them are wrong.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dennis.
DENNIS: Thank you, bye-bye.
CONAN: I have to say that throughout this book, you have nothing but kind things to say about artists and performers and producers with one exception, Clive Davis, who forced you to make a rock 'n' roll cover album.
BENNETT: Well, it was just - you know, the times were changing, and they went that way, and it - I had so much professionalism originally in the '50s. It was just the end of professionalism. It just started changing right there. But at least Mitch Miller, who didn't care too much for jazz but yet he would - he still - he liked Erroll Garner. He didn't like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, I don't know why. But he was a classical oboist, one of the best in the world.
But he saw how much money was being made as a producer, and so he would always try to stop me from singing jazz, which I consider the great American art that was created in New Orleans by the African-Americans. And I loved it, and I still do love it. I think it's not treated right. The greatest jazz artists that I've ever met never get the kind of money that rock 'n' roll people make.
It's quite tragic, I think, because they're really artists. They're so original and inventive, and they're true artists and not recognized. A lot of them end up in Paris somewhere in a little tiny nightclub with four or five tables and have to work gigs like that, and that's - I'm always shocked. I can't believe how great they are, and they're not treated as big as they should be treated.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Bob, Bob with us - excuse me, Bob is with us from Richmond.
BOB: Oh my gosh, I'm all verklempt, I've been waiting so long. Well, what an honor to speak to you.
BENNETT: Thank you.
BOB: I'm a retired singer. I envy you. I'm 57. I got interested in singing really because of my dad's record collection, included you, Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and I listened to WNEW New York, WEHN, which played all your stuff. So I got away from rock 'n' roll. But, you know, your kind of - your style of singing kind of went out of style in the '80s, so I drifted into classical music. I got into opera where the work was...
BOB: ...but I never liked it.
BENNETT: But that's the real thing, though.
BOB: Yeah, it is, but what I like about your voice is you're a combination of a good technician and a good artist. You know, there are a lot of guys who make a lot out of having like four good notes. You know, you're early stuff, man. I mean, you're a true tenor...
BOB: ...who sang - who could sing popular music with the skill of an operatic singer. That's a rare skill, and I know that, having studied opera. So, you know - and the fact that you're still singing as well as you are is a real tribute to how well you have sung and...
BENNETT: Thank you.
BOB: And you make me feel young, so I feel like I got 20 more years of singing. So I'm going to keep singing.
CONAN: Good for you, Bob.
BOB: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
BENNETT: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Let's see. We go to - Naomi Ruth(ph) is with us from Chico, California.
NAOMI RUTH: Hi.
RUTH: Well, I've been singing. I sang with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks in '69, started in psychedelic music and then hit jazz and been doing both and eclectic. And I like original material that has a nostalgic sound, a jazz kind of nostalgic sound, but original material.
I think Tony has always picked great - you've always picked great material. You sing with soul and simplicity. I love - the more I sing, the older I get, the less I find stating something with fewer phrases, like - I don't know if that - if you understand what I mean.
BENNETT: I do. I understand.
RUTH: Yeah. And your humility, I think, getting along with people in this business because there's so many kinds, and you don't seem egotistical, which you run into that a lot. And I played Carnegie Hall, and I once saw Jimmy Durante at Radio City Music Hall in the '50s with my dad.
BENNETT: Oh, great.
RUTH: Yeah. So I just wanted to say, hey, and some day, some day I'll do a duet, hopefully, with you. I'm still wishing to do one with Willie Nelson because I met him and sang with him in '72 in Austin.
BENNETT: That's wonderful, yeah.
CONAN: You sang with Willie Nelson as well, Tony Bennett.
BENNETT: Right. I love him. He's such a great guy.
CONAN: Well, Naomi Ruth, thank you very much for the call.
RUTH: Thank you.
BENNETT: Thank you.
RUTH: What a...
CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry. I think we hung up before she was quite finished. But anyway, Tony Bennett is with us today from our bureau in New York, "Life is a Gift," his new book, "The Zen of Bennett," "Viva Duets" his most recent recording. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And here's an email that we have from Scott(ph) in Oklahoma City: Can Mr. Bennett give advice to young musicians about how to handle the business side of a career in music? I have two 19-year-old nephews trying to break into the business. They're studying in college, performing weekends. How would he recommend business class? Would you recommend business classes?
BENNETT: Absolutely. The more you know about business, the better it is. This isn't - there's a lot of crooks out there, you know? They see a lot of money for some performers, and they will rip you off, and make it sound like that they really love you and they really see to you.
I ended up just having my own son and my whole family, actually. I have my - one son does all my recordings. He's an engineer, wonderful engineer. And my other son has been managing me for 35 years now. And my granddaughter is - does all my photography.
And my daughter Antonia, she sings with me on the stage every performance now, and she's really singing wonderful now. So it's all in the family, and I don't have to worry about being ripped off by some shrewd politicians.
CONAN: We're almost to the holiday, and I wanted you to tell the story. You grew up in Astoria in Queens, and your dad died when you were young, and the family hit hard times. Your mother worked very hard and raised the whole family on the income that she earned. But one year, there was not enough to get the Thanksgiving turkey, yet you...
CONAN: Well, tell us the story.
BENNETT: Well, it was a miracle. I just - I loved my mom so much because she had to work on a penny just to put food on the table. It was during the Depression in the United States, and everybody had a tough time. And I was so hurt because she was crying that she didn't have any food for us for Thanksgiving.
And I couldn't believe it. And I went to a movie theater, and they were raffling off gifts for Thanksgiving. And I held that ticket, hoping that my number would come in, and a beautiful miracle in my life happened because they called up my number, number four, which is still my lucky number to this day. And they gave me a big turkey, and I walked in the house with a big turkey. And my mom and my brother and sister have never gotten over that, and neither have I. It was just so beautiful.
CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. Let's go to Christina(ph), Christina with us from Denver.
CHRISTINA: Hello. Thank you for getting me on the show. And, Mr. Bennett, I am a huge fan. You've really influenced me. I'm a professional singer, and a lot of my life lessons and a lot of my performance lessons I've taken from listening to you over the years and hearing how you approach music and other people. And so I really wanted to thank you for that, first and foremost.
BENNETT: Thank you.
CONAN: Can you tell us what in particular you've taken away from Tony Bennett?
CHRISTINA: Yes. I am now 41 years old. I didn't start singing professionally until I was 27. As you can hear, I have a fairly low voice, and it did take a while for it to come in. But one thing that I have noticed from your singing over the years is just that you have great richness of tone, excellent support. As you said, you sing scales every day, and that makes perfect sense to me now.
Taking care of your voice and taking care of yourself and taking care of your family and those around you over the years leads to a long career, leads to a happy career. We're in a culture that's obsessed with getting there quickly and riches. And the pre-packaged voice and shows that throw young people onstage and really just put them under the bus, in my opinion. And a lot of them are just not ready for that. I think it comes with a shock and that preparing to be performer does take decades.
CONAN: Well, Christina, that's a lovely sentiment. Thank you so much for the call. Appreciate it.
BENNETT: Very good.
CHRISTINA: Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving. And my family is from Astoria too. So...
BENNETT: Oh, great.
CHRISTINA: (Unintelligible) my 103-year-old grandmother named Aida(ph) living there.
BENNETT: That's my favorite place, Astoria.
CHRISTINA: Me too. Me too. I love it there. OK. God bless. Thank you so much.
CONAN: And, Tony Bennett, have a great Thanksgiving.
BENNETT: Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: Tony Bennett was with us from our bureau in New York. His new book, "Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett," and again, "Viva Duets" his most recent recording. Coming up, Brian Castner used to defuse bombs in Iraq as commander of an explosive ordinance disposal unit. He tells us about what he calls a lethal game of cat and mouse. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.