On June 21, legendary singer Anthony Benedetto – better known to the world as Tony Bennett – will perform at Ravinia for the 40th time.
N’DIGO caught up with the 92-year-old singer and artist to discuss his upcoming gig at Ravinia, his critically acclaimed artwork, his favorite singer today, and a whole lot more.
N’DIGO: Forty shows at Ravinia! Are you planning any surprises this time around?
Tony Bennett: No surprises, but this particular concert on June 21 will be extra special because it is my seventh wedding anniversary! I married the love of my life, Susan Benedetto, on June 21, 2012.
At my concerts, I try to surprise myself, and the audience, by rearranging my song list every night. It is what I call “moving the furniture around onstage.” Of course, each one is a treasure from The Great American Songbook.
And I ALWAYS include my signature tune, I Left My Heart In San Francisco, which was brought to my attention in 1954 by my beloved and gifted pianist, the late Ralph Sharon.
Who is your favorite singer out today?
Lady Gaga, I just love her! Lady is brilliant in whatever she does. Did you know that during our “Cheek To Cheek” Tour in 2015, our two-night engagement was the fastest sell-out in Ravinia history?
Anyone else you would like to collaborate with?
I would love to team up with Stevie Wonder for an album.
You and your wife founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. What inspired that?
Whenever I am asked, I have always told young performers to get a good education first. With that in mind, 20 years ago my wife Susan and I created the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts as a living legacy to my dear friend and mentor. It became the flagship school for Exploring the Arts (ETA), which is a non-profit organization.
ETA’s purpose is to transform the lives of young people through arts education. It provides greater equality of resources and opportunity in the arts to traditionally underserved teens. I am happy to say that ETA currently serves 45 public high schools and middle schools throughout New York City and Los Angeles.
What advice would you give to a young singer today?
Get a good, well-rounded education first. But next, I’d tell them to stay with the best music. It’s advice I received from Frank Sinatra and it has served me well.
Art is your other passion besides singing and performing. I remember, when I was an editor with Jet Magazine, having the privilege of watching you create a masterpiece. You were putting the finishing touches on your portrait of Duke Ellington and you were so kind to invite me to your suite at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. Now the Ellington portrait is permanently in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
I remember! You were going to do an interview for Jet while I was performing at the Drury Lane Water Tower here. It was the early 1980s. My publicist asked if you might come up to the hotel suite and do the interview while I was completing the portrait of Duke. It was a pleasure to share that time with you!
On what would have been Duke’s 110th birthday, on April 29, 2009, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery accepted that painting as part of their permanent collection. I titled it “God Is Love”.
Duke was my dear, loving friend. He always wanted to see my sketches, and inspired me to “Always do two things (music and painting). Don’t just do one.” I have always been grateful to Duke Ellington for his wisdom and encouragement. The significance of the pink roses in the portrait is that Duke would always send me a dozen pink roses whenever he wrote a new song.
What does it feel like to have your work as part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian? Actually, you have three at the Smithsonian Institution: a portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, a painting of New York City’s Central Park, and the Ellington portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.
It is a great honor. To have even one painting, let alone three, in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution is more than I ever dreamed of while making chalk drawings on the sidewalk at age five in front of our family home in Astoria, Queens.
What are your memories of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald?
Such beautiful memories. Ella and Duke were the masters and I learned so much from both of them. Ella was my neighbor in New York for many years and I recently had the honor of singing at her 100th birthday celebration.
What’s on your bucket list?
I am really living my bucket list every single day. I have my health, my beautiful wife, children, grandchildren, and our devoted Maltese, “Happy”! Just to make people happy brings me so much joy.
I Left My Heart In San Francisco has made me a citizen of the world. It is still a thrill to get to perform throughout our wonderful country and abroad, which gives me the opportunity to travel. In June, I will be doing a concert in one of my favorite venues, London’s magnificent Royal Albert Hall.
I also try to paint every single day wherever I happen to be. I just love what I do. I want to keep singing and painting and try to get better and better as I get older. I love to perform and I’ll never retire!
(For ticket information for his June 21 concert, contact Ravinia.org. Tony Bennett’s daughter, Antonia Bennett, is his very special guest star.)