Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
A Memorable Meal With Tony Bennett
In Memory of the Great Singer and Educator (1926-2023)
Tony Bennett was a star the year I was born, and he remains one today, the day of his passing at age 96. When I was the pop critic (not “rock, “my editor told me the day I was hired at Newsday in 1975) I had the good fortune to see Tony Bennett perform frequently through the years. I grew to love his concerts the way I loved all the greats of the rock era: Ramones, Stones, Neil Young, Springsteen, Bowie, Dylan, Tom Petty, James Brown, Stevie Wonder. . . knowing there would be no bad songs (Young was the eccentric exception), no phoning it in. It was by channeling Tony Bennett, whether with an orchestra or only with his longtime pianist, Ralph Sharon, that I fell in love with what has become known as The Great American Songboook. Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, the list goes on. Sinatra was his only peer as a vocalist and interpreter. A Sinatra concert was always exciting, a bit of a psychodrama as Frank fought 15 rounds with the weight of being Frank Sinatra. Tony Bennett had no such drama: he brought drama to the songs that required it, but Tony Bennett himself was the least insecure singer I’ve ever heard, or met. And man could he swing. He was also an outstanding painter.
My daughter Jacqueline was one of the first graduates 11 years ago of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., founded by Tony Bennett. Bennett raised tens of millions of dollars and named it after Hoboken, N.J.’s favorite son in tribute. Bennett was an active partcipants: He didn’t just give money and use influence to get the school off the ground, a new building with an outstanding theater for performances. He and his wife Susan Bendedetto were almost always in attendance whenever I saw a performance there by Jackie, a flute/biology major, or her classmates. As I say later in this story, Tony Bennett could be spotted at the school during class times, walking the halls and picking up and throwing away teenage litter: gum wrappers, crumpled paper. Shortly after Jackie graduated, Bennett invited a friend to do an impromptu concert assembly at the school, which is how Paul McCartney came to play in Astoria.
Even at the time, Bennett’s memory was beginning to falter. I said hello to him once, asked if he remembered our lunch at Piccolo Venezia a few blocks away. The gears were slipping, though, and I learned just to shake hands and say hello. The school will invariably be renamed after its founder, and deserves to be known as thge Tony Bennett High School of the Arts, preferably before it reopens for the fall semester. This lunch interview with Tony was for his album “The Art of Excellence,” a title he embodied every day of his long, productive life.
On a rainy spring afternoon in 1986, Tony Bennett and I stood outside a small house on 23th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. "My grandfather used to sit on that stoop," said Bennett, then 59 years old. "He taught me to love people. He used to say 'buon giorno, buon giorno' to people all day long."
It was a sentimental journey for both of us. A few blocks away, on Steinway Street, my own grandfather started an electrical supply store in 1921. My grandparents lived not far away on Crescent Street, and my parents and I lived there for the first few months of my life. My dad went to work for my grandfather, his father-in-law, and so I kind of grew up in and around Astoria through my teen years.
Knowing we both had roots in the same neighborhood, I had suggested an Astoria lunch interview when Tony was promoting The Art of Excellence, his return to his original label Columbia Records. I met Tony at his Manhattan apartment/office, and then the two of us got into his Town Car or limo, and headed across the 59th Street bridge. I had made reservations at Piccolo Venezia, one of Astoria's finest Italian restaurants. I had told them my guest would be native son Tony Bennett. We were running late, and when we turned the corner onto 28th Avenue at 42nd Street, much of the staff was waiting outside, hoping they hadn't been bamboozled. When they saw the car stop and Tony and I emerge, their collective sigh of relief was audible to Astoria Boulevard.
There was, of course, a barfly who knew Tony from the old neighborhood, dropping names of the joints he used to play: the Spindletop, the Shangri-La. Bennett graciously exchanged banter with the man, and a few minutes later, when we were sitting, he told me: "The Shangri-La was right on Ditmars Boulevard. A dynamite place, a very glamorous supper club. Tyree Glenn [trombonist] used to play there with Louis Armstrong. It's a supermarket now."
We were seated at a booth for six, with two place settings. And instead of ordering from the menu, they served us platter after platter, wine after wine, and after a few hours, espresso with a rolling cart of cognacs and Sambuccas and other digestifs. The platter that I remember most was the fresh sepia, a close relative of squid and octopus, that still had the taste of the Mediterranean. Tony declared it one of the finest meals he'd ever eaten.
We spoke about so many things: the art of Louise Nevelson; his love for Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. His own career as a painter, for which he uses his given name, Anthony Benedetto. He compared the era of the composers of the great American popular songs, the Gershwins and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and others, to "a period like the French Impressionist painters at the turn of the century that everyone still loves. We had that in popular music, we had Jerome Kern when the Empire State building and the Chrysler building were just being built . . . there was great promise in the air, the whole country was positive." Some of this overlapped with the Great Depression. Glass half empty? That's an illusion. For Tony Bennett, the glass was always nearly full.
He surprised me when he said the most difficult period of his lifetime was not the Depression: It was my adolescence, the 1960s. "I used to cry every day. What could be tougher than Kent State?" he said referring to the four students shot to death protesting the Vietam War in May 1970. "It's the worst thing that ever happened in the United States. Children being shot in the street because they didn't agree with what the government was doing . . . Children, who were saying the right thing."
When I asked for a check, the owner looked insulted. He asked instead for a photo of the three of us together, which one of the waiters took with a camera. That picture stayed up on the wall of the restaurant for decades. I left a handful of $20 bills as a tip, and then we headed out again in the car towards those places our grandparents raised us. We didn't just stop in front of his grandfather's house: He wanted to see where Steinway Electric was, to see where I came from. Another business had moved in; my dad had retired a few years earlier.
But each of our family relationships with Astoria did not end: They became more vigorous. My daughter Liz just moved from Astoria after living there for nine years; she and her husband had outgrown their apartment. Her first apartment was on 36th Avenue. We had dinner one night, I walked her to her building, and she watched me go into the alley entrance of the church next door, where I had an AA speaking commitment.
My daughter Jackie commuted to high school in Astoria. She was among the first graduating classes of the Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts on 35th Avenue. Tony Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, raised many millions of dollars as seed money to build this new New York City public high school, which combined high academic standards and a performing arts curriculum. Jackie was a flute and science major. There is a state of the art auditorium for performances, and at almost every show I saw while Jackie was in school, Tony and Susan were present. It was not unusual for her to come home from school and say she saw Tony Bennett at school. What was he doing? Not much, just walking through the halls, picking up and throwing away the teenage trash, gum wrappers and the like, keeping the hallways of his school clean.
A few years after our lunch, Bennett released an album called Astoria: Portrait of the Artist. My memory is not what it used to be, since I was sure I interviewed Tony for that album, which came out in 1990. My memory was wrong. But flawed as it is, at 71, I still have a memory.
Tony Bennett, at 95, is suffering from Alzheimer's. That is well known. Yet he still sings: a new album Cole Porter duets with Lady Gaga, Love for Sale, was out October 1.
I'd been a fan of the duo ever since they sang the Rodgers & Hart standard "The Lady is a Tramp," from Duets II in 2011. Gaga and Bennett then cut a whole album together, Cheek to Cheek, on which nothing quite matched intense, combustible chemistry of "The Lady is a Tramp." But on Love for Sale, Gaga has raised her jazz game, more fluid and at ease with the syncopation.
And the song was perfect. Gaga was the tramp, she leaned all in to phrase "ermine and pearls," pronouncing it "oymen and poils" with her best Brooklyn/Queens accent. And the great wit of Lorenz Hart's lyric, the secret sauce that I love as a passionate admirer of good wordsmithing, is the rhyme from the line that begins: "Life without care, but I am so broke, that's oak." Or "oke," as Lyric Genius puts it in its annoation of the original version, from the 1937 show Babes in Arms. It's really "OK," pronounced as "oak/oke," to rhyme with "broke." Got it? No? That's oak.
What matters is that Bennett and Gaga have a connection that transcends both generational differences and the tragedy of a disease. Alzheimer's has robbed Bennett of everything but his voice. Nate Chinen, the editorial director for WBGO-FM (88.3 FM, the great Newark jazz station), interviewed Gaga, and the station spoke to Susan Benedetto, Bennett's longtime wife and now caregiver, who said: "Prior to singing, and then when he gets offstage, he would not necessarily know where he was or why he was there. And he couldn't even tell you if he sang or not. But in that moment, you can just tell: all the mannerisms and the music, everything just comes right back."
How is this possible? I spoke to Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and musician. Levitin is the author of the essential This is Your Brain on Music, and The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. These books hit me so powerfully that in 2016 I grabbed an assignment from the Forward (an online English version of the Yiddish newspaper that my grandparents read), and flew on my own dime to Northern California to meet Levitin and write a story.
I emailed him last week about Bennett and his new record. "From a neuroscientific perspective, it’s not surprising that he can keep singing because the things we learn early and practice the most stay with us," Levitin said. "No one is surprised that he can still walk, talk, eat with a fork, or brush his teeth because those are things all of us (well, most of us) do regularly, and we don’t practice and practice with an intent to do them on the world stage. But whether it’s music, or painting, playing basketball or laying tile, if you know it well enough, it’s protected from neuro-degeneration because it is so deeply, and well instantiated in the brain."
That is why Tony Bennett still sings and swings. And why I always feel comfortable in Astoria, as if protected by the spirit of my grandparents. And by the memory of a most special afternoon with Tony Bennett.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, please consider a paid or free subscription.