Jazz, pop singer Tony Bennett still crooning at 87

Tony Bennett, known for his smooth voice, will perform at the Community Arts Center in Williamsport on May 15.
Tony Bennett, known for his smooth voice, will perform at the Community Arts Center in Williamsport on May 15. Photo provided

Making his first appearance in Williamsport, legendary jazz and pop singer Tony Bennett will perform live at the Community Arts Center on May 15. Known for popular music, standards, show tunes and jazz, Bennett is perhaps best known for his signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” recorded in 1962. Bennett’s daughter, Antonia, will be a guest vocalist.

Still hip with audiences at age 87, the iconic pop and jazz crooner has performed for more years and at a higher level of excellence than perhaps any other artist in popular American music. Bennett reached an artistic peak in the late 1950s with albums such as “The Beat of My Heart” and “Basie Swings, Bennett Sings” with the Count Basie Orchestra. His career then suffered a downturn during the height of the rock-music era, but regained popularity in the late 1980s and ‘90s. Most recently, Bennett has experienced a kind of a renaissance, thanks to various duet albums with modern rock singers.

During his illustrious six-decade career, Bennett has won 17 Grammy Awards, two Emmy Awards, and has sold more than 50 million records worldwide. Aside from music, Bennett also is an accomplished painter, with works on permanent public display in several institutions. He is the founder of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York City.

Bennett recalled growing up in the Depression, a time when there was not a lot of money to spend on entertainment. If you bought a record, you had to make sure that the entire family would enjoy it.

“I remember one of the first records I purchased was of Enrico Caruso, and I had an uncle who was connected to Broadway so I got to see theatrical productions as a result,” he said. “But it was jazz music that hit me hard, and the first time I heard it, I just fell in love with it and feel that way now. It’s America’s classical music and it’s an art form that we invented in this country.”

After serving in World War II, Bennett came home and was fortunate, under the GI Bill, to be able to attend classes at The American Theatre Wing, where one of his vocal coaches, Mimi Speer, gave him some advice that greatly influenced him as a singer.

“She told me not to imitate any other singers as then I would just become one of the chorus. Instead she told me to listen to jazz musicians that I admired and try to emulate their instrumental style,” he said. “I have always loved the pianist Art Tatum. ... he had a very unique style where he would build each song into its own finale layer by layer, creating a mini-monument of each song he performed; and I studied his style and used that in my own song performances.”

Throughout his career, Bennett has had the pleasure to record and perform with a wide array of artists, including Judy Garland, K.D. Lang, and most recently Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga, with whom he has recorded a complete album which will be released in September. But if there is one artist Bennett regrets never having the honor to perform with, it’s a certain New Orleans jazz legend.

“I will say that the one performer I never got a chance to sing with and would have loved to have had that opportunity is Louis Armstrong,” he said. “He was a consummate performer and he truly taught us all how to sing.”

With a career that spans seven decades, Bennett still performs for all the same reasons he did when he began this musical journey; and he shows no signs of slowing down.

“I just love it — as much today as when I was first starting out,” he said. “I think it is a very noble profession to perform for people, and for a few hours they forget their own problems, and if they leave the show and feel good, that, to me, is a great compliment.”