Tony Bennett was born Anthony Benedetto, and Benedetto, in Italian, means “blessed.”
You could say he is living up to his name.
At 86, Bennett, who is performing tonight at the Seneca Niagara Casino, just keeps on singing. He is healthy and fit. Pop stars, led by Lady Gaga, idolize him. To top it all off, he is even more handsome now than he was when he was young.
Even the bad times have been good to Tony Bennett. In the 1970s, with no record label and heavy tax debt, he fell into a quagmire of substance abuse. His sons pulled him out of it, taking over his management. Bennett came out of that crisis stronger than when he went in. Life’s hard knocks have given his voice more soul and depth.
As his Niagara Falls show approaches, Bennett is on the road, and can be interviewed only by email. Even in that impersonal medium, his warmth and charm shine through.
“I always say your only as good as your NEXT show,” he types. “But I have so many wonderful memories of performances.
“One in particular that comes to mind is when I was performing at the Hollywood Bowl and I was singing ‘Lost in the Stars’ and during the song the entire audience went ‘AHHH’ all at once.
“I wasn’t sure why. But when I got off stage after the show the stage hand said, ‘Did you see what happened?’ I said I hadn’t. And he told me that during that song, a shooting star fell over the Bowl.
“The next day I got a call from Ray Charles, who heard about it from one of the musicians and he said, ‘Tony, how did you do that?’ ”
Charles asked a good question. How does Bennett do it?
It could be that he stays true to the music he loves, while remaining open to new ways of singing it, and new ways of bringing it to a wider audience.
He is not proud, and he once sought coaching from Buffalo native Andy Anselmo, the great voice teacher who founded the Singers Forum in Manhattan and now lives, semiretired, in Williamsville.
Recently, Anselmo told The News a sweet anecdote about Bennett’s dog, which would stop barking only when held. “I used to go over to his apartment to teach him,” he said. “He had this dog, a Maltese. That dog would not let him sing. He had to hold this dog all the way through the exercises.”
It’s true, Bennett admits in his email.
“That was my little dog Boo,” he writes. “We lost Boo a few years back, but now we have another wonderful Maltese we named Happy.
“Andy was absolutely wonderful and it’s important to keep up vocal training, as they say if you don’t do your scales on the first day, you know it, on the second day the band knows it and on the third day the audience knows it.”
That would be a legitimate concern in Bennett’s case, because his audience is gigantic.
His popular “Duets” albums have seen him teamed with not only Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Marc Anthony, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and others. Bennett sings only what he believes in, and so the songs were unapologetically vintage. Andrea Bocelli teamed with Bennett on “Stranger in Paradise;” Queen Latifah on “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)?”
Over the decades, Bennett has been linked with the biggest names in jazz. The concert at the Hollywood Bowl with the falling star was with Count Basie. Bennett even made a couple of records with the iconoclastic pianist Bill Evans.
Bennett remembers the collaboration with pleasure.
“I recorded with Bill Evans during a time when I had left Columbia Records and it was one of those things that you truly cannot explain,” he writes. “Bill was a musical genius and he understood singers completely. And with a duet, whether its two singers or a singer and a instrumentalist, having the contrast is always what makes it work the best. The two records I recorded with Bill ended up being the ones that most critics always ask me about.”
“My favorite song is ‘All the Things You Are,’ so that I find to be a truly inspiring number that makes me want to sing it whenever I hear it.”
Bennett’s success proves that great songs never go out of style.
Neither do great singers. Asked about his friendship with Dinah Washington, he segues into a story of how his past met his present.
“Dinah was great and we would see each other in Las Vegas,” Bennett writes. “She never booked herself in Vegas. She would just show up in town and go to the casino and say, ‘OK, ‘I’m here, so set me up to perform.’ She was incredible and when I recorded with Amy Winehouse for DUETS II she was nervous during the session. I asked her about halfway through if she had ever listened to Dinah Washington as I told her she had a similar sound.
“Amy lit up and said that Dinah was ‘her goddess.’ And after that Amy was completely inspired and the session came out wonderful.”