With a new album of duets featuring Sinatra and Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett tells Chrissy Iley why he never went to rehab…
The 87-year-old crooner talks about how he fought a cocaine addiction
We are in Tony Bennett’s painting studio overlooking New York’s Central Park. There’s a table full of oil pa ints, half-finished canvases, watercolours and a bronze bust of Harry Belafonte. Tony Bennett is not a person who paints in old slacks and a cardigan. He’s wearing a navy pin-stripe suit, blue shirt, floral tie and a smile that is part angelic, part cheery Cheshire cat. His eyes are large and kind, but you feel there is pain behind them.
He’s 87, still singing, still painting, still taking art classes, still headlining concert tours and putting out at least two albums a year. His latest, The Classics, is a collection of his most loved duets. They include Sinatra, Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera and Michael Bublé. Poignantly, too, there’s a
‘Amy was one of the greatest jazz singers’
reprise of his 2011 Grammy-winner Body And Soul with the talented but tragic Amy Winehouse, her last- ever track, recorded just a few months before her death in July that year.
They developed an unlikely bond. ‘Amy Winehouse was one of the greatest jazz singers of all time,’ he tells me, gesturing for me to sit with him on his couch. ‘In many ways she achieved what she wanted to do. It’s regrettable that she died so young.’ Long pause. ‘She was wonderful.’ Did she ever talk to him about her problems or her addiction to drugs and alcohol? There’s another long pause. ‘I wanted her to...’ he begins. ‘Cary Grant, the handsomest man in the world, sorry for name-dropping, suggested before he died [in 1986] that for my 85th birthday I should play the London Palladium.’ When he reached his 80s, Bennett began making plans for the Palladium show and wanted Amy to play there with him. ‘I was so sad she died before I had the chance to ask her,’ he says.
They were strangely kindred spirits. In the Seventies when his kind of jazz standard style seemed old-fashioned and was muted by the excesses of rock, Bennett himself smoked pot and did cocaine. You can’t imagine him not talking about such things with Winehouse. He’s said in the past, ‘When you get into drugs you hide from the public. You sneak around. I got caught up in it. When the Kennedys and Martin Luther King were assassinated in the 1960s, our country took a terrible turn. Everybody got wasted.’ Now he explains, ‘I wasn’t doing a huge amount. I was smoking pot and doing a little bit of cocaine. People get addicted and everything changes for the worse.’
In fact he became seriously ill from a cocaine overdose in 1979 when he had to be revived in the bath by his second wife, Sandra Grant. He managed to avoid rehab, but then came a seminal moment. ‘The manager of [comedian] Lenny Bruce told me he sinned against his talent with his drug habit. That sentence changed my life. I’ve been given this gift. I know how to sing and perform. I’m sinning against this gift and I thought, “I am not going to do that any more”, and I just stopped. I had to, because I thought I was going to lose everything. It was said at the right moment, at the right time.’ No other help? ‘No, just like that.’ He confides that he had an addictive personality, but the only thing he’s hooked on now is chocolate. ‘ But if you eat it in moderation, you’re not going to get into trouble. It’s good to take care of yourself. It took me years to realise that, but now I’m content. I don’t have to worry about what I’m doing. I sleep well. I’m doing so much better. I exercise three times a week with a trainer.’
It seems everybody wants to sing with him and no one – in a career spanning more than 60 years – seems to have had a bad word to say about him. He seems to have made no enemies. His smile turns into a grin. ‘I try to be a good person, you know.’
How has he made all these unlikely duets – others in his career include Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson – come about? ‘We like to go to where they live so they feel comfortable, rather than have them come to us. Paris, California, wherever.’
He married his third wife, Susan Crow, 35 years his junior, in 2007. ‘It was her father who introduced us. We hit it off from the beginning. We worked together establishing my schools for the performing arts.’
There are now 17 of them, named after his late friend Frank Sinatra, with whom he sings New York, New York on his album. Bennett’s career catapulted in the Fifties after Sinatra
stated in a magazine, ‘For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the world.’ ‘Sinatra’s fans became interested in me and I sold out all over the world. He did change my career. I owe him so much.’
Duetting with Lady Gaga, with whom he sings The Lady Is A Tramp on the album, has raised as many eyebrows as Amy Winehouse. ‘Everyone expects Lady Gaga to be a bit strange. Not at all, she’s very intelligent and a great singer. She’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. She knows how to be absolutely unpredictable.’
Bennett has played for more presidents than any other living musician. ‘President Clinton was the first president I felt I didn’t have to stand to attention for. He knows a lot about music. I really like President Obama. He’s working hard to stop all wars. I sung for him with Stevie Wonder.’
Music and painting were always his great loves. He sold his first painting to Cary Grant. ‘It was a scene in the South of France. He liked it because the view from his window in the Hollywood Hills looked very similar to the painting.’ In his studio, he currently has several paintings in progress. A couple of portraits of women – local art students who pose as models. And up on the easel there’s a large scene of Central Park, impressionistic happy colours. ‘I paint whenever I can. If I don’t I miss it, and if you keep doing something, it becomes effortless. It’s not a struggle to do the few things I love. I like to say I’ve never worked a day in my life, because I’m doing the things I love.’
Bennett is also a civil rights champion, which goes back to when he served in World War II. He was shocked by the racism he encountered. He was reprimanded for bringing a black friend to a dinner at his hotel even though he was told he could bring any guest he wanted.
‘My captain called me out, cut off my corporal stripes, threw them to the ground and put me on grave duty. I had to pick up dead bodies to register them. That incident affected my whole being.’
He says he’s never had to choose between his music and his art. ‘When I was growing up, my Italian-American family, all the aunts and uncles, would come over every Sunday to help my mum out because my father was ill for a long time before he died when I was ten. My mother Anna was a seamstress and worked day and night for a penny a dress to put food on the table for three children.
‘When the relatives came over I would sing for them and also show them my art. Everyone told me I painted and sang very well and I remember clearly saying this is who I am. I had a very strong passion and to this day I still have that passion and that is still who I am, and I’m still learning.’
Tony Bennett: The Classics album is out now.
Unlikely bond: Tony Bennett with Amy Winehouse with whom he recorded a duet