A night out with Tony Bennett
Little-known fact: Tony Bennett likes to dine alone.
He’s the man over in the corner, back to the wall, eating in an Italian restaurant at the Hilton hotel in Anaheim, Calif., a Los Angeles exurb best known as the home of Disneyland. Don’t tell the women who send single red carnations and impassioned note cards to his hotel rooms, but Bennett is happily unaccompanied, and all dressed up in a tan suit, necktie, clean white shirt, and little gold tennis racket-shaped cuff links (tennis is his favorite sport).
The maître d’ sends over the best the house has to offer: a big plate of calamari fritti, fried buffalo mozzarella, grilled scampi, and angel hair pasta in cream sauce. Bennett obligingly eats, but all he really wants is plain linguini al dente in fresh tomato and basil sauce, a white wine spritzer, and coffee with Sweet’n Low.
This is how I first meet Tony Bennett, crooner of enduring love songs, eternal smoothy, and champion romantic vocalist. Think about it: After Sinatra, who else do you listen to when you and your honey want to spin around and do a dip in the living room? With concert dates booked through 1995, Bennett’s career has legs and then some. He’s celebrating his 40th year at the microphone, and did it with fireworks — literally — when he performed with the National Symphony Orchestra on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol for a July 4 PBS special, A Capitol Fourth. And Columbia/Legacy Records has just released a career-crowning four-CD (or -cassette) boxed set entitled Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett.
I meet him three hours before the final night of the 44th Annual International Communications Association convention, where he’ll be performing in the Hilton’s cavernous Pacific Ballroom for over 800 telephone, telecommunications, and satellite system executives from corporations across America. Okay, so it’s not exactly Carnegie Hall, but Bennett plays Carnegie Hall at least once a year (either solo or for some kind of benefit), and he isn’t embarrassed to say that he’s well paid to perform so-called ”industrials.” He books about 20 a year, receiving a fee his management will only say is in the mid- to high five figures. ”They not only pay well, they’re far-reaching,” Bennett adds. ”People send out antennae and tell their friends. It’s like vaudeville. It pays off.”
After dinner, Bennett carries his black canvas airplane bag and plastic suit bag to a large suite where he awaits his call. The suite is equipped with two coffee urns and enough coffee cups and water glasses to slake the thirst of an entourage — so where is the entourage?
Another little-known fact: It’s gone, for about a dozen years now. Bennett excuses himself to practice his scales and reappears in a tux. He’s still wearing the gold tennis rackets and what look suspiciously like the same pair of black shoes he had on with the tan suit.
Just to make conversation, I wonder aloud about his inevitably vast wardrobe of tuxedos. Bennett says he owns two. ”How many do you need?” he asks.
This is Tony Bennett, a music icon, on the road 200 nights a year from Tokyo to Trump Castle, booked with concert dates through 1995, and here he is with two tuxedos, possibly one pair of black shoes, and no dinner companions. What’s it all mean?
”He’s chipping away at all the fat,” says Danny Bennett, 37, who has run his father’s career for 12 years.
”It’s not what you’d imagine, Tony Bennett and his entourage, or anything like that. He doesn’t have little groups like most stars,” says Ralph Sharon, Bennett’s pianist of 25 years and the man credited with discovering the singer’s signature song, ”I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Sharon seems to hit the nail on the head when he adds, ”There’s a simpleness to Tony’s life.”
In conversation, Bennett alludes to Eastern mysticism, letting the word ”Zen” slip out. He doesn’t elaborate much; he’s not a big talker, except to say that there was a time a dozen years ago when he ”went through it all. I had entourages and party after party. It was one party. I don’t remember learning from it. And I walked away and said, ‘What a waste of time.’ Everyone expected something great to happen, and it never did.” He doesn’t articulate his philosophy, but he has clearly developed an interest in something bigger than himself. ”It was a search for the right way to do things,” he says. ”If everything else fails, read the instructions.”
When pressed to explain, Bennett gets philosophical. ”The more relaxed a thing is, the more peaceful it is, the more successful it is. It’s almost like water on a rock. The water’s so simple, so powerful, it molds the rock.”
At the concert, Bennett performs his familiar repertoire of standards — songs by the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Cy Coleman, and Sammy Cahn. The audience is appreciative, and, clearly, so is Bennett. He punctuates the songs with hokey movements, shaking his clasped hands like a champion boxer as thanks for applause. When the 50-minute concert ends, Bennett satisfies howls for ”more, more” with an encore. He always does encores, says his 17-year-old daughter, Antonia, who is seated in the audience and lip-synchs along with her father. Antonia is his daughter by his second wife, Sandra, from whom he was divorced in 1979. (Manager Danny is his son by first wife Patricia, from whom he split in 1971.) Bennett, who turns 65 on Aug. 3, is reportedly keeping company with a much younger woman, Susan Crow, a New York talent manager, but he politely refuses to say anything about her.
Later, I ask Bennett what he thinks about on-stage. ”It might be my daughter Antonia, or a beautiful day, a beautiful sunrise. Sometimes I look at the way the spotlight hits a glass. Life is amazing, it really is.”
When the concert ends, middle-age pandemonium begins. Barbara Shonk, wife of a telecommunications specialist at Phillips Petroleum in Bellaire, Tex., rushes Bennett backstage. Raffaele Marraffa, the concert’s video camera operator, appears next in Bennett’s line of vision, requesting an autograph for his cousin. The maître d’ from the Italian restaurant tracks Bennett down and tells him, ”There’s nobody like you.” Phillip Evans, president of the International Communications Association, introduces Bennett to his wife, his mother, his two daughters, and his son-in-law. Bennett willingly poses for pictures. He graciously makes chitchat. His smile could outlast a long-life battery.
”You’re my idol, I’ve got to tell you, since I was a little kid,” enthuses Jim Heatherly, an ICA official.
”Oh, geez,” Bennett responds warmly. ”Thanks very much.”
”He’s so neat. He’s so down-to-earth,” reports Heatherly. And so it goes, night after night.
The next evening, Bennett, a longtime painter who takes his art as seriously as his music, attends the opening of an exhibit of his work in a gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. While it’s not quite the kind of gallery where Bennett’s idol, David Hockney, might show his work, Bennett’s admirers are as hungry as ever for a moment of his attention.
Bennett stands erect for three hours, posing for the usual fan pictures, signing autographs, quietly accepting praise, stuffing his pockets with the innumerable business cards that are pressed into his palm. Toward the end he sighs and starts to shift his weight from one foot to the other a little more often than before. ”Now you know why I eat alone,” he whispers in my ear. The water on the rock, I think. The water on the rock.