David Gately

Work of Art: Tony Bennett at 85

In Anthony Benedetto, David Gately, Tony Bennett on August 3, 2011 at 7:05 am
Bennedetto still life

Tony Bennett once said, “To work is to feel alive.” He should know. He turns 85 today and is working harder than ever.

A few years back, the octogenarian told CNN.com that he performs up to 200 shows a year. And that’s just Tony Bennett: singer extraordinaire of American popular music, show tunes and jazz. There’s also Anthony Benedetto: artist.

Most famous for standards like “Because of You,” “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco, Bennett uses his given name for his moonlighting career as a painter. He says he began drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk outside his home in Queens, New York, at the tender age of five.

Over the past 60 years, as his singing career pitched high and low, Bennett’s oil paintings, watercolors and lithographs of skyscapes, portraits and still lifes have blossomed. Today, while defying physical odds and outrunning his contemporaries by becoming king of the crooning game, he’s stealthfully composed a respectable painting attaché and patronage, exhibited in galleries around the world and published several books of his art work.

For the fifteen-time Grammy winner, two-time Emmy winner and Kennedy Center Honoree, the legacy has not been sketched with perfect altos and frescos, however, more like one of his other early hits “Rags to Riches.”

A first-generation Italian-American, Bennett grew up poor. His mother was a seamstress, his father, a grocer, became ill and stop working and his brother died, all before he was 10. Drafted by the Army in 1944 he saw battle in WWII Europe. His vocal acuity was discovered when he returned stateside and joined the American Theatre Wing on the G.I. Bill.

Signing with Columbia Records in 1950, he cranked out other hits like “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Blue Velvet,” then, by the early 1960s, turned successfully to up-tempo jazz ditties with bold brassy undertones. When the Beatles invaded and young audiences tune on and out, Bennett, like Sinatra and so many other signature post-WWII big-band voices, became a has-been.

In 1972 he departed Columbia for MGM, but with little success. By the late 1970s he was professionally and personally bankrupt. Addiction, including a never-fatal cocaine overdose in 1979, brought him to his knees. When he sought help, his oldest son, Danny, was among the many who shrewdly advised him to bring back the standards for the Pepsi generation.

By the mid-1980s Bennett was crooning “Fly Me to the Moon” again to newly devoted twenty-year-olds on The Simpons, The Muppets and MTV. In the 1990s he released commercially and critically successful twists of his and other standards and duet albums with the hip and alternative Elvis Costello and k.d. Lang.

[On Aug 3, Bennett’s 85th birthday, he confirmed that on September 20, he will release “Body and Soul,” a duet he recorded with the late Amy Winehouse. The song appears on his forthcoming album Tony Bennett: Duets II. Bennett says it’s a charity single, with proceeds going to the foundation Winehouse’s father recently established to combat drug use among teens. Click here to hear Tony Bennett talk about recording with Amy Winehouse.]

All the while Bennett said he “continued painting everyday.” Today he has three originals in The Smithsonian Institute, including his portrait of Duke Ellington, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has exhibited his paintings and many, which sell as high as $800,000, hang in the homes of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Whoopi Goldberg.

Bennett says he has no intention of retiring. “If you study the masters — Picasso, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire — right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative,” he said, “you get busier as you get older.”

So Happy 85th Mr. Benedetto. And many more.

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