Music: Life's Been Good So Far

Legend Tony Bennett talks about finding a new younger audience

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Tony Bennett doesn't want to be the best, just one of the best.

He is a man of many passions — painting and music, critically acclaimed in both. As he talks in his Manhattan studio, Tony Bennett is involved in the former, even as he discusses the latter. Soon to be 75 (in August), Bennett feels he is growing as a painter.

"You never stop learning with technique and colors," he says. "It's a matter of discipline." When you reach that special place, that place they call "the zone," freedom comes about, he says.

When he talks about painting, he could just as easily be speaking about music, especially when he says the whole premise of good painting is to fall in love with life.

"You look for truth and beauty," Bennett says. "You become more and more aware of everything. Your eyes open up all of a sudden.

You're in touch with the whole moment. It makes you grow as a human being. It goes into your whole system, how you feel about everything you're doing. It's all a spiritual and uplifting thing, something you want to convey to the audience."

Whether it is through painting or music, Bennett has long been getting his classy, artistic point across to audiences.

"I'm very content," he says. "I'm singing and painting. That's what I wanted to do my whole life."

He credits his manager-son Danny with putting him in a position to find this peace.

"He's managed me for 20 years, a brilliant guy who knew what I wanted," says Bennett. "He's liberated me. He got me with young people, which has given me a big lift in my career. All I can do is thank God. I'd like to just grow as a person as much as possible."

Bennett says he owes his youth appeal not only to smart management decisions by his son, but also to the younger generation's ability to recognize material that's timeless. To this end, the advent of the compact disc has been very important, he adds.

"When those young people put their earphones on and started hearing Ella Fitzgerald, Nat 'King' Cole and Duke Ellington, they heard this clean sound from a CD and wonderful performances. And they said, 'Gosh! I didn't know they sounded like that,' and they compared it to the Rock music they listened to. And also Natalie Cole and Linda Ronstadt were doing songs from the golden era of music. People were hearing very strong quality. They were saying, 'Our parents weren't really that wrong.' "

Bennett admits to this pet peeve: "I get very upset with any advertisers or producers of the entertainment industry that look down at the public like they aren't intelligent and say, 'Let's give them something on a 14-year-old level.' When I get in front of an audience of young people, they are so intelligent. If they see someone doing an honest job, they support them like they've never seen anything like it."

With the death of his friend, Frank Sinatra, some look to Bennett to now wear Sinatra's mantle. Bennett doesn't necessarily agree.

"I always said I don't want to be the best, but one of the best ... that's plenty for me," Bennett says. "Some people say there's just room for one No. 1. I think there are many great artists. I think people are more artistic than they think they are. It's not just in the arts. Carpenters. Anything that anybody does with great care is an artist."

Bennett says he feels his strength is his spirit.

"My two favorite performers are Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante," he says. "They inspire me. It was all spirit with them. Everything they did ... was a full 150 percent, giving the audience everything you got."

That's what he tries to do, he says. "Sinatra was that way also. We lost a great friend. It was very difficult to see him at the end of his life. He had been so active for so many years and brought so much life to everyone around him. He was so upbeat. Being around him was just so much fun."

The same can be said for Tony Bennett, which probably is why he has been able to win a younger audience, including MTV.

"I think young people are interested, because they never heard it," he says. "They've been marketed out. They just heard whatever was current at the time, the Top 40, what everybody was pushing. It's not like years ago where the audience was the judge. Then it was converted over (by the music business) to 'Let's not worry about what the audience wants. Let's just market it like it's a soft drink bottle and say this is what's happening.' "

Music and melody are what's happening, what's premier, to Bennett. "It just makes life worthwhile. It's like Fred Astaire wrote, 'Life is beautiful.' You arrive at that when you think creatively. It drives all the cynics crazy."

Such philosophy is found in his recent autobiography The Good Life. "It's amazing. I've never really looked at my life. I'm a person who never thought of retrogressing," he says of putting the book together. "Doing this autobiography, I said to myself I really had a pretty interesting life (laughs). I'm not nostalgic. I try to enjoy each day. To go back was a revelation for me. I found things out I didn't know about my great-grandparents and other relatives."

What does he hope people take from the book?

"Just to be good to one another," he says. "I have a complete disgust for bigotry and violence." Bennett was active in the Civil Rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King Jr.

When it all comes down to it, Bennett says he loves to entertain people, which he is doing again this summer in various ways, including teaming with k.d lang for a tour.

He refers to her as one of the finest singers he's ever heard. He first worked with her when lang sang "Moonglow" with him on Bennett's MTV Unplugged special. The album of that concert won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1995.

"I think it's a very noble job trying to make people feel good," Bennett says. "What a noble job it is to be a performer, to make people say 'I really enjoyed myself. I forgot my worldly personal problems.' It is a terrific occupation for any performer. We all have fears and worries. We try to rid ourselves from it. I consider the contributions entertainers can make as pockets of relief away from worries."

TONY BENNETT performs on Sunday at Riverbend with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

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