With a new al­bum of duets fea­tur­ing Si­na­tra and Amy Wine­house, Tony Ben­nett tells Chrissy Iley why he never went to re­hab…

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - CONTENTS -

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

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