Way back in the 1930s, when Tony Bennett was little Anthony Benedetto, the budding singer was enrolled in a New York City public arts high school before he dropped out to work and help support his family.
“I went to my music teacher and told him I was thinking about dropping music and just concentrating on art and he encouraged me to stick with singing,” he remembers.
That sage advice still resonates today as he and his wife, Susan, help support art programs at 17 schools in New York.
“It gives the students a reason to come to school that they enjoy,” he says. “And being exposed to the arts and expressing yourself through the arts makes you a better citizen.”
It’s his way of giving back more than 60 years into a career that has garnered 17 Grammy awards, NEA Jazz Master and Kennedy Center Honoree awards and the signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
At 87, his latest project is an unlikely jazz collaboration with Lady Gaga called “Cheek to Cheek,” due out later this year.
Before he belts out the classics at the Green Music Center next Friday, Bennett took time to chat over email about painting, cardiology and his unforgettable stint as a singing waiter.
Q: Ever think of changing back to Benedetto? Why the name change originally?
A: Well, Bob Hope actually gave me the name “Tony Bennett” backstage at the Paramount Theatre when I first started out. In fact, when he announced me to the audience as “Tony Bennett” that night, it was the first time anyone, including myself, had heard the name.
It was Duke Ellington who encouraged me to get serious about my painting, so when I started to show paintings in galleries and museums I decided to paint under my family name, Benedetto, which means “the blessed one.” So I guess I use both names now.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you learned at an early age about this business?
A: I made so many mistakes when I was younger, but you learn from each of them. I think the best lesson I learned early on was not to start the show with a big rousing number. Instead, build up to it, as the audience needs to get settled. I used to go gangbusters right from the top of the show and I have learned to pace things better.
Q: How about your stint as a singing waiter — what did you learn from that gig that still sticks with you today?
A: I still feel that if I never made it professionally, I would be perfectly happy to just be a singing waiter. It kept you on your toes for sure and I just love performing for the public.
Q: Have you ever been contacted by an organ donor or heart transplant specialist looking to use your rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” for promotional purposes?
A: I think the closest I came to that was doing a benefit for the cardiology division of the University of Southern California a few years ago. They held the event in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day, so it was very appropriate.
My favorite story about my signature song is that I was convinced the “A” side of the record, a gorgeous song called “Once Upon A Time,” would be the hit, so I was promoting that song and mentioning it in all my interviews. I get a call from the promotions department at Columbia Records and they say to me “Tony, turn over the record — ‘San Francisco’ is going to be the hit!”
Who: Tony Bennett
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8
Where: Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park
Tickets: $25 to $65