Tony Bennett on Frank Sinatra, Lady Gaga and his new album, Live at the Sahara
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Bennett for CBC.ca
Tony Bennett’s catalogue extends over 60 years, and his career is an extensive one. Bennett has worked with a plethora of heavy-hitter artists – everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Costello to Michael Bublé. His legacy continues to grow, despite the fact he’s approaching his 90s.
We had the rare opportunity to speak with Bennett about his new album, Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964. He talked to us about Vegas's good old days, singing jazz with Lady Gaga and why he hasn't retired, despite being just shy of 90.
Paint a picture of Las Vegas in the '60s.
That was the best era of Vegas. It was just before the corporations took over. It was run by independent guys from the underworld, both the Jewish and Italian. The Mormons owned the land — and they still do, by the way. They invented Vegas. It was so different then, now it’s very commercial and it’s just the sound of big noise. In those days, you had the best entertainers in the world in Vegas — you had Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin and the great Sinatra.
There’s a quote from Sinatra — he said you were the best singer in the business.
That was a wonderful compliment. He was a great friend. When he made that statement, he got all his fans to check me out and I’ve been sold out ever since, for the rest of my life. He was really a great friend.
Is there somewhere in the world now that you think is like Vegas back in the '60s?
Not really. I play intimate places, concert halls that are acoustical, but no it’s quite different now than it was back then. I mean back then, you had Ella Fitzgerald with Nelson Riddle just around in the lounge, not even in the show room. Tell us about Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964.
When I did the album, Louis Prima was in the lounge at the Sahara hotel. You had Mickey Rooney and Danny Thomas spontaneously cracking jokes. And we had a great audience. It’s live, so you get a feel for that on the album. It sounds like you were having the time of your life.
It has that spirit. And you can hear the audience — they were having the time of their lives, too.
Why release it now?
It all started with a Dave Brubeck album. President Kennedy invited us to sing at the White House. We did a spontaneous recording on the lawn of the White House. [Listening to it now], it sounds brand new, it doesn’t sound dated at all, so we [thought about that]. When we thought about it, we came up with another album that was never released: the Sahara concert. It still sounds brand new.
Is there a singer you can name that evokes that jazz spirit for you today?
I think Lady Gaga is really spectacular. I made an album with her that will be released in January next year. She’s bright, she’s intelligent and the audience adores her.
What can you tell us about that album?
It’s a big swingin' album with the best jazz men — Marion Evans is the orchestrator, he’s great. It’s a real hot jazz album. I think everyone’s gonna say, God, I had no idea that Lady Gaga sings that well. She’s singing real jazz.
It seems like you two have great chemistry together.
We do. We get along great, she’s a wonderful person. The first time I met her, I met her mother and father. They’re all well educated, including Lady Gaga. They’re all intelligent people and I like being with them.
Your favourite song is "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
It really is. What it’s done for me internationally … it’s world famous. When people hear it, they love it so much, they come and visit San Francisco. It’s the biggest song I’m identified with. I only do songs that are well written, intelligent songs. I don’t like to insult the audience. I don’t try to make hit records. I just want good performances from very well written songs. The audience deserves it. If they’re nice enough to come see me, I wanna give them the best songs I can think of. If it isn’t top quality, I don’t want to perform them.
How do you get a feeling for whether a song is for you?
I can hear if someone does intelligent writing. If it’s interesting. I don’t look at what year it was written, I’m not interested. If it’s a good song … you take a song like, [Bennett sings] "Daybreak, another new day." Right away you hear it. You get into it, work out an arrangement and then finally sing it. If it’s a good song, I do it.
And you just have a knack for knowing.
I love doing what I do. I could have retired 20 years ago, but I do it because I love to make people feel good.
Your whole catalogue is going to be available on iTunes soon?
Right, that’s coming out on October 8. You can get albums from 1950 to now. It proves that nothing sounds dated or old-fashioned. [Because I did] good songs with good musicians, the records hold up like they’re brand new. From 1950 to now, there’s not one bad record on there.