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Singer Tony Bennett Still Going Strong At 75

Among those nominated for this year’s Grammy Awards was legendary singer Tony Bennett. The nomination is for his duo with rocker Billy Joel in the song “New York State of Mind.” It’s one of the selections on Bennett’s latest album, Playing With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues in which he joins such singers as Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, and K.D. Lang, as well as Joel.

Tony Bennett is among the very few singers who can claim loyal fans from several generations. And during a visit to Washington, he attracted an excited group of students who got up early one recent Sunday morning to see their “pop star” in person.

Visit a record store and you might find Tony Bennett CDs displayed in the pop music section, or in the jazz bins, or in the “top 40” display. It’s the same singer who drew thousands of screaming teenagers crowding around the stage entrance of the Paramount Theater in New York City and other concert halls in the 1950s. Now, at the George Washington University, the children and grandchildren of those fans are greeting him outside a small, campus radio station studio.

At the age of 75, Tony Bennett has worked with and befriended so many legends of the jazz and popular music worlds – Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, among others. Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in the working class Queens borough of New York City, Tony Bennett acquired his stage name from comedian Bob Hope, who discovered Bennett singing in a nightclub in 1949.

But he told VOA that he had an even earlier singing engagement on the international radio service for the U.S. Armed Forces. “I was in the Second World War in Germany,” he said. “At the end of the war, I joined the American Forces Network [which broadcasts] across all of Europe. So I was very familiar with the station. It was a thrill. I was a librarian for a big orchestra and had no idea I’d ever be in show business. They just assigned me to be a librarian. But I was allowed to sing two songs on the American Forces Network all over Europe.”

Tony Bennett also became popular worldwide through another international radio service, VOA, and especially through the support of the late host of “The Jazz Hour,” Willis Conover. Mr. Bennett said, “I think he was the ultimate musicologist. He knew so much about everything in music and he was so eloquent about describing his knowledge. And he was a wonderful person to me also.”

Indeed, advised that the VOA is celebrating its 60th birthday this year, Tony Bennett took time for a salute. He said, “To the Voice of America, happy birthday!”

Because he was in Washington, where Duke Ellington spent many years, Mr. Bennett talked about his love for the jazz composer and band leader’s music. In fact, three years ago he devoted an entire CD to the works of Ellington, entitled Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot and Cool.

“Wherever I travel, wherever I go – whether it’s Beijing, or New Zealand or Finland or Sweden or Belgium – I walk into a wonderful restaurant and there’s either a trio or a good piano player, and they’re all playing Duke Ellington – much more than the Beatles, or anything contemporary like the Rolling Stones. There’s an ‘underground.’ Duke Ellington survives,” he said.

Tony Bennett says he wishes more Americans would regard Ellington’s work as much as people in England and other countries do. “One time in England, I was in a classical record shop in London,” he said. “A very distinguished salesman came up and asked me, ‘Do you like classical music?’ I said yes. He said, ‘What do you listen to?’ I said Ravel and Debussy. He said, ‘Do you know who wrote more music than any composer in the history of the world? Duke Ellington.’ In our great country, we still don’t realize that he and [George] Gershwin will be [considered] the greatest classical musicians of our country.”

But it was a song composed and scored by two musicians far less well-known than Ellington that became Tony Bennett’s best-known song – the George Cory and Douglass Cross tune “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” His 1962 recording of the song earned Bennett one of his ten Grammy Awards.

He told VOA that the story behind the song’s debut was a suggestion from his long-time pianist Ralph Sharon. “Ralph Sharon found it,” he continued. “The two guys, Douglass Cross and George Cory, who wrote it used to be friends of Billie Holiday. Ralph knew them. We were in Little Rock, Arkansas, on our way to San Francisco for the first time. He said, ‘I think this is a good song to sing in the city.’ We had no idea. We thought it would make a good local song. I had no idea it would be my signature song. It changed my whole career.”

Tony Bennett adds that the people of San Francisco are also grateful that he chose their city to rhapsodize about. “Just a few nights ago,” he said, “I had a dream about everybody in San Francisco cheering me and putting me on their shoulders. It’s been going on and on through my life. They’ve been wonderful to me.”

Thirty years later, Tony Bennett’s son, Danny, introduced his father to a new generation through “MTV” and other youth media. The recording Unplugged, produced by Danny Bennett, won the “Album of the Year” Grammy Award in 1995.

Tony Bennett said the advent of music videos as an entertainment medium lured him into reentering the youth market. “It was my idea,” he said. “I like to see films that are done in three minutes and tell a whole story. I said I like that. Danny went right in there and got me on the show.”

While Tony Bennett continues touring – he’s booked for concerts through 2003 – the singer finds time for another artistic pursuit – painting. Although he studied art in high school and has painted regularly since then, his work has attracted wide acclaim recently and has been exhibited in art galleries. He said, “I do portraits and landscapes. I paint in oil and watercolors and also do some sketching.”

Tony Bennett, who at the age of 75, keeps very busy and still takes time to visit a student radio station in Washington to encourage young people’s interest in jazz.

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