With more than 60 years of experience performing and more than 10 million records sold, Tony Bennett could have rested on his success long ago. But for Bennett, who was discovered by Bob Hope in 1949, being a performer is part of his identity.
"I grew up in an Italian American family during the Depression and there wasn't a lot of money to spend on entertainment," Bennett, whose given name is Dominick Benedetto, told the Sun-Gazette in an email interview. Bennett will perform at 7:30 p.m. May 15 at the Community Arts Center, 220 W. Fourth St.
"Every Sunday my family would gather together for a meal and after dinner they would create a circle and my brother, sister and I would entertain them,"?he said. "I remember knowing at that point, through the encouragement of my family, that being a performer was what I wanted to do with my life. I love to perform for people and I hope that for the hours they are at my show they can forget about their own problems and enjoy themselves."
Bennett, who turns 88 this summer, grew up listening to jazz musicians and crooners like Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and James Durante. Having performed duets with everyone from Aretha Franklin to James Taylor to Lady Gaga, Bennett said his dream duet companion would be one of his childhood idols: Louis Armstrong.
"I would have loved to have had the chance to sing with Louis Armstrong because he really taught us all how to sing and entertain. Although we shared the bill at a performance once and I knew him as a friend over the years we never got the chance to sing together," he said.
Fortunately Bennett is given the opportunity to enjoy duets with another great singer on a regular basis: his 40-year-old daughter, Antonia Bennett, who will join the CAC concert as a special guest.
"My daughter Antonia has been touring with me for the past few years and she used to come on stage as a very young girl when I would perform in New York or Los Angeles, so she has always loved to sing for people. She is a very good jazz singer and studied at the Berklee School of Music, so she learned the right way to sing," Bennett said.
Bennett's love for jazz continues to keep performances fresh, since jazz is a genre of improvisation.
"I love jazz musicians because they are so highly adept at what they do that as a result they are able to be spontaneous," he said. "Throughout my career I have gravitated to working with the best jazz players I could find. I have a marvelous quartet who I tour with ... Because jazz is based on improvisation we can keep each performance very unique and in-the-moment and can change things right on stage in the middle of the show. It keeps things different every night."
Bennett feels proud that he has built his career on a wide range of songs, all of the highest quality, rather than a few radio singles.
"When I started recorded my goal was to create a 'hit catalog,' not just have 'hit songs' that were often novelty tunes that might hit it big for three weeks and then be instantly forgotten," he said.
While singing always has been Bennett's focus, it's not his only talent - he also is an accomplished painter.
"I paint or sketch every day, even when I am on the road," he said. "Duke Ellington gave me the advice to really pursue painting seriously and I love the fact that if I get a bit burned out from singing then I can go off and paint and four hours seems like four minutes. Then when I am done painting I am ready to hit the stage and sing again. By having both art forms I can always stay in a creative zone."
Bennett also keeps busy by working for causes that are important to him. He keeps the wise words of a fellow singer in mind when choosing causes to support: "Ella Fitzgerald used to say, 'Tony, we are all here' and it was her way of saying no matter what our differences we are all on this same planet together and therefore we need to help one another out as best we can," he said.
Along with his wife Susan, Bennett has founded Exploring the Arts, an organization which supports arts education in public high schools.
"We started out by founding the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, which is a public arts high school we built in Astoria, Queens (N.Y.), where I grew up. Over 10 years later we are now supporting 14 public high schools in NYC and three public high schools in Los Angeles and our goal is to be able to help schools in every state in the country," he said.
Those who attend Bennett's upcoming show can look forward to hearing beloved favorites, performed by a master.
"I was fortunate enough after I returned home from World War II to be able to study under the GI Bill of Rights with the American Theatre Wing and I had excellent teachers who I was able to study with at that time. The one lesson they taught me was to never insult the audience and always present them with the best possible material you can find," he said. "So that has been my premise ever since - to perform the best popular songs I can find."
For more information or to purchase tickets, call the Community Arts Center at 570-326-2424 or visit www.cac live.com.