David Evanier

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2 years, 11 months ago
  • What a great experiences this has been for me, the depth of your questions!
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  • Eric, this is absolutely true. Tony always tries to communicate hopefulness. When he sings a song that is less positive, like “This Funny World,” he does so to speak out against intolerance, unkindness, and bigotry. But then he sings “The Way You Look Tonight,” and the audience is experiencing the the most joyous moments of life–or he sings “I Got Lost In Her Arms,” and we are in the presence of the most passionate love scenes ever captured in song.

  • Rosalind, I think that’s a very perceptive description of why the kids love Tony. George Burns commented once that the young performers couldn’t develop the way his generation could, playing six or seven shows a day before livevaudeville audiences. Tony is a bridge between generations and his performances are really magical. He is in a sense the last man standing. Judy Garland said “He isn’t copying anyone. His sound gets into your ear and into your heart.” And yes, melody is the key.

  • Tony’s commitment to the civil rights movement is total and passionate. He marched at Selma and took part in many civil rights demonstrations anonymously. It is an essential part of his character. When he was in the army, fighting the ultimate war for democracy, he invited a black buddy of his to Thanksgiving dinner in Mannheim, Germany. A sergeant spotted the two men, raged at Bennett, demoted him, stripped him of his medals, threw them on the ground, spat and stomped on them, and reassigned him to Graves Registration detail. He never forgot that experience. Nor did he forget seeing a cross burning in the South–he told his manager never to book him in the South again–and he refused to sing in apartheid South Africa. What hurt him deeply was seeing the great artists he revered like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine and Duke Ellington not permitted to dine or stay in the hotels where they were starring in the nightclubs, consigned to staying at crummy motels across town. And of course the ultimate result of racism and bigotry was what he saw at the concentration camp he helped to liberate in Nazi Germany. When Harry Belafonte first met Bennett and Tony talked to him of his experiences in the war, Belafonte commented that he realized there was more to this singer than he had known–much more.

  • Toby, this is often true. But Tony has remained true to his roots, and part of the reason may be his very positive experiences of his own family asserting their Italian-American identity. There was no hiding in that family. He is very proud of his Italian background and celebrates it. He associates being Italian with celebration of beauty, humanity, culture, art and music–with every aspect of creativity. He is wedded to the Italian community. He is especially critical of the denigration of Italians and the stereotypes that are still pervasive. To gain a deeper understanding of Tony’s hatred of the Mafia, see my discussion of his painting,”The Underworld,” in my book. One can learn a lot about Tony from that painting.

  • Shoto, I go into his painting in some depth in my book. The fact is that he’s very good: his New York scenes are wonderful and his paintings of jazz musicians are outstanding. He has been a determined painter ever since he was a young boy and drew with chalk on the sidewalk and his friends would good-naturedly toss peanuts at him to try to distract him. He kept painting. Later, Duke Ellington told him to “do two things well,” to be creative all the time. He never forgets meaningful advice. His painting of Duke Ellington with 12 red roses is in the Smithsonian art museum. The origin of that painting is Ellington’s sending Tony 12 red roses every time he wrote a new song. His great painting of Louis Armstrong is still directly across from Satchmo’s desk at his home (not a museum) in Corona, Queens. Armstrong wanted it there so he could look at it every day. Asked who painted it, Armstrong would say dryly, “Just a boy in the neighborhood.” (Tony lived in Astoria, not far at all from Corona)

  • Tony plays tennis three times a week, or has done so until recently and is in good shape. He certainly is the most natural singer. I believe he loves singing more than any other singer I have ever seen. The critic Nat Hentoff has written that it is hard for a singer to stay real for a long time. Tony has certainly done that. He just loves the acclaim of the audience. Joe Williams,another great, noted that while the ovations came at him on stage, he looked like a little boy, he was so happy and eager. There really is no distance between him and his audience. He feels he is at their service, a feeling he had initially when he was a singing waiter. His responsibility is to uplift people, to inspire hope and encouragement. Then too there is the quality of his voice: that gravelly, raspy, New York street sound, full of warmth and accessibility. He was influenced by the honeyed sound of Stan Getz. But as Count Basie told him, “Sing sweet, but put a little dirt in it.”

  • Shoto, I write unauthorized books which limit relationships with my subjects. I need to maintain that objectivity and distance no matter how much I love the person I’m writing about. Otherwise there is inevitable friction, pressure and the sacrifice of artistic standards. I write a biography the way I write my novels, allowing for nuance, complexity, contradiction, and surprise. Nothing is set in stone. I met Tony briefly at the Oak Room of the Plaza at an event in honor of Will Friedwald’s new book (and in which Eric Comstock sang). I told Tony I was his biographer and that he would be very happy with the book. He smiled and held my hand. Later, in front of the hotel, I ran into him and did not want to bother him. But he came up to me warmly and touched me and said “Take care of yourself.” My deepest wish is that he will love the book. I have not heard from him yet about it.

  • Eric, there had to be aspects of rivalry, of course, but mostly I found that there were genuine affection between the two. Bennett simply idolized Sinatra. He said again and again that Sinatra introduced the art of intimate singing, and that Sinatra would last forever, that he was timeless, and that this defined great art. He said that he calls his school the Sinatra school because Sinatra “was the master.” Bennett walks away from anyone who suggests that he is a better singer than Sinatra. When Sinatra called Bennett “the best singer in the business” in 1965 in Life Magazine, Bennett was stunned. Danny Bennett has written that he took it upon himself as a sacred obligation to live up to that statement. We will perhaps never know the full depth of that relationship, but Sinatra was always there for Bennett: when Tony’s mother was ill, Sinatra took it upon himself to call Bennett the best singer when he knew Tony’s mother was watching him on television. He once remarked on stage, when Tony was seated in the audience,
    that Tony was seated next to Sinatra’s wife Barbara, but he was not worried about it, he could trust him, because Tony was “his brother.” Watching the one performance they did together in 1988, there was early tension in the performance, particularly on Sinatra’s part, but both men performed beautifully. At the end, someone in the audience gave Sinatra a bouquet. Sinatra plucked a flower from the bouquet, and–this was awkward to do since they were both singing and moving about the stage–Sinatra earnestly inserted the flower in Bennett’s lapel. To me this seemed like a loving gesture. I think what’s essential to understand is that for Tony, the music, the art is the thing; the artist is at the service of the art. Sinatra, to Tony, is the best, and that is most important to him to celebrate.

  • Shoto, that’s absolutely true. Dizzy Gillespie said that Tony’s singing is “raw soulfulness.” He stops you in your tracks because he is in the moment, living the song. Jonathan Schwartz said to me that there are just a few singers who are conversation stoppers: Tony, Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Judy Garland.

  • Kelly, absolutely. Tony learned especially from the jazz singers when he hung around swing street, 52nd Street, and first saw Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. His gift for improvisation, which he sees as an essential aspect of jazz, has only grown with time. Even today, and I mean this minute, you’ll probably look around in a small jazz club and spot him sitting in the audience, appreciating so many jazz artists around New York City. Everybody sees him. The other quality of all of those singers I mentioned (and I didn’t even get to some of my other favorites, Ray Charles, Etta Jones, Ernie Andrews, Bill Henderson, Judy Garland, etc.) is the quality of heart. Tony has the quality of “letting you in,” so that you feel he is your friend. It’s also the quality of intimacy that he learned from Sinatra.

  • I believe a movie about Connie Francis is in the works. I certainly hope so, and I hope that the director continues to be Nancy Savoca, (who had planned to do it first) who made one of the most beautiful Italian-American movies about a working-class bride and groom, “True Love.” As to Tony, a movie would appear to be a natural, and as I said, Vittorio de Sica had it in mind when Tony was still a young man. Imagine how much more he has accomplished since then!

  • Eric, that’s very true. Tony was born here, but his parents were immigrants from Calabria and he was not far removed from the intense persecution that Italian-Americans experienced in America in the early years. This was true too of Eddie Cantor, who was so close to President Roosevelt and launched the March of Dimes, Jimmy Durante, son of an immigrant Italian barber, and so many other of our greatest entertainers. Tony has always stayed rooted to his origins, connected to his Italian identity, connected to the great anti-fascist humanists from Ignazio Silone to de Sica, Rossellini, Carlo Levi, Primo Levi. I was moved that Vittorio de Sica wanted to do a film about Tony in the 1970s before he died. Tony grew up in the workingclass town of Astoria Queens and surely one of his most amazing acts has been to create a marvelous school in Astoria for aspiring young students who want careers in the arts. That school, which I’ve visited, is a miracle of good taste, vibrancy, beautiful colors, an atmosphere of eager learning on the part of the students. And they all told me that Tony is a constant visitor, checking up on their grades, a father figure to them. And let’s not forget the most astonishing thing of all: Tony named the school not for himself but for his mentor, Frank Sinatra: The Frank Sinatra School for the Arts.

  • Suzanne, I’d have to say the most surprising thing is Tony’s toughness. Tony is a pacifist and a progressive activist, and his attitudes were shaped by serving in World War Two and liberating a concentration camp. But he is no pushover. He stands up for what he believes; it’s that Calabrese toughness that his niece, Nina Chiappa, described to me. One of my astonishments was in finding out what happened with Tony at Columbia Records. The myth is that Columbia fired him. Not at all true. He fought with them to be able to keep singing great music of the American songbook; he fought against singing novelty songs like “Come Ona My House,” all that nonsense that was fostered by Mitch Miller. He fought to sing an anti-Vietnam War cantata, “The Children’s Plea for Peace” that Alec Wilder composed. Columbia refused to let him record the Wilder piece and opposed him on all the other fronts. He was completely enraged with them. Nevertheless, Columbia came back to him with a contract renewal. His manager Derek Boulton presented it to him. Tony said “Let me see it.” Boulton gave it to him. It was thick; it had the heft of a phone book. Tony tore it in half with his bare hands. Take a look at his hands on the cover of my book; they are huge and strong. The next day the business manager of Columbia, Walter Dean, not knowing what Tony had done, invited Tony and Derek Boulton to his office to consummate the signing of the contract. Tony entered the office. Dean held out his hand. Tony socked him in the jaw and knocked Dean to the floor. He said “Good day,” and walked out. That was the end of that contract. Derek Boulton remained behind to help Dean up.

  • Elliott, a great deal of my book is about Tony’s early life, since there were so many formative influences at that point: the impact of the great depression, the extreme poverty of his family, the influence of his father, a sensitive person who died when Tony was nine. Tony’s father inculcated in Tony a love of humanity. He read to him from the classics of literature, he told him of his heroes, Paul Robeson and Mahatma Gandhi, he instilled in him a love for music and an understanding of the equality of all people. In fact, all of Tony’s family had the same progressive politics. In addition, there was great love and Italian spirit in that family. On Sundays the family gathered in AStoria gardens and Tony’s parents, aunts and uncles place the children in a circle and serenaded them with their mandolins and guitars, and then Tony, his brother and sister in turn serenaded the adults. Tony was especially impacted by the feeling of brotherhood that the depression years created among people, a banding together. And of course there was Tony’s deep love for his mother, who worked as a seamstress in a factory. He would wait for her at night by the subway and help carry the piecework she brought home and in the morning walked back with her to the subway. The feelings of home and love that Tony experienced as a young man would shape his entire life.

  • Tony has the complexities of all artists. He is uncompromising about his art and everything is sacrificed to that art. He is very sensitive and vulnerable and insecure. It’s perhaps that insecurity that has motivated him to keep growing and improving as an artist. He is always moving on to the next challenge. I was struck in studying him about how really tough he is. Sinatra always made a point of hiding his vulnerability and sensitivity by creating a tough, macho persona (although certainly not in his music). Tony hides his toughness by playing up his sweetness and upbeat personality. Both men have a lot in common, which is perhaps why Sinatra always said that Bennett “had four sets of balls.” Tony is everything he seems and many things that are less apparent. Going back to my comment about his insecurity, he is an eternal student, watcher, learner. He esteems great artists and tends to put them above him. The result is that at 85 he remains fresh, vital, alive, in tune with his times, and deeply committed to being at the service of his music and of the community. We have to hold on to him with both hands.

  • Elliott, yes that’s true. Tony was known for that. It happened because of a number of factors: the decline of his kind of music, his disastrous financial problems, a difficult second marriage which moved him to Hollywood and “the good life” that he sardonically sings about, and the impact of Vietnam and the negative feelings he had about the country at that time. He was saved by his mentors, especially Duke Ellington, who gave him great moral support. Bennett saw in the Duke’s eyes love and validation. Phoebe Jacobs, the great music publicist and VP of the Louis Armstrong foundation, spoke to me in the book about how much Ellington helped Tony through those tough years.

  • Eric, I’m drawn to Italian-American artists because of their individuality–they sound like no one else. Let’s take the top tier: Sinatra, Bennett, Bobby Darin, Jimmy Roselli, Jimmy Durante, Louis Prima and Dean Martin. They emanate passion above all, and joyousness, warmth, humor, and I’d say they are connected to their real feelings. Some have great voices, some do not. But they move us deeply. And, in regard to Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Durante and Bobby Darin, they were especially drawn to civil rights and other progressive causes. Sinatra was a pioneer with his film about racial equality, “The House I Live In,” which Tony saw while in the service. So these were people who looked beyond themselves to the society around them.

  • Tony asked for Danny’s help in straightening out his finances and rejuvenating his career. Tony was deeply in debt at the time. He was never really interested in the business end; he just wanted to do his art: both his music and his painting. Danny took over the business end and also suggested re-introducing Tony to the youth audience. Slowly, effectively, Danny did that, putting Tony on MTV where he was a huge success. Danny told Tony just to be himself, which, by the way is what Sinatra once told him. Sinatra said “You can only be yourself. And that is a lot.” And so Tony went on MTV and didn’t pander; he was just himself; he was authentic. And the youth audience recognized how unique and rare he was as a singer.

  • Hi Elliott, both his sons, Danny and Daegal, played major roles, Danny on the business end, Daegal on the production end. This is a remarkable story in that it was a kind of role reversal: the sons came to the aid of their parent at a time Tony was going through a personal crisis and a crisis with the music scene at Columbia Records.

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