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Tony Bennett: 'I love what I do'
Tony Bennett, the 90-year-old Grammy award-winning artist, will be taking the stage in York with his daughter, Antonia, this May.
Bennett has spent six decades traveling the world, collaborating with artists, painting and advocating for art in schools.
Bennett is the headliner for a weekendlong renaming celebration for a downtown York landmark. In May, the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center will become the Appell Center for the Performing Arts to honor philanthropist Louis Appell Jr., who died in June, and Bennett will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5, at the center, 50 N. George St.
In anticipation of his show, Bennett recently did an email interview with The York Dispatch to discuss the upcoming show, his love for painting and his experiences as a performer.
Starting out: Bennett was born on Aug. 3, 1926, and grew up during the Great Depression, which he said ultimately influenced his decision to become a singer. His father died when he was only 10, so his Italian-American family helped his mother raise him and his two siblings.
"Every Sunday they would come to our house and we would have a big meal, and then they would gather around my brother and sister and myself in a circle, and we would perform for them," Bennett said in the email. "The love and encouragement I received from my family during those Sundays inspired me to want to become a performer."
He's continued to stay inspired for more than six decades of his career, continuing to perform after many others might have retired. After serving in the military during World War II, he found his inspiration through Mimi Speer, his music teacher at the American Theatre Wing, the organization that created the Tony Awards.
He said another who inspired him musically was pianist Art Tatum because each time he performed a song he made it its own dramatic piece.
"I was inspired by Tatum's piano playing early on, and it influenced my way of singing," Bennett wrote.
With each of his concerts, Bennett said his goal is to make people forget about their daily problems, even if just for a few hours.
He's accomplished this goal with a plethora of artists such as Paul McCartney, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand. He said it was impossible to choose just one favorite from the many greats he's collaborated with or performed duets with, but recently he's worked with pop artist Lady Gaga and truly enjoyed the experience.
"She is such an authentic artist, and she works very hard at everything she does — every little detail she makes sure is perfect," he said.
The two recorded an album, "Cheek to Cheek," which was released in 2014, and then toured to promote it. In total the two performed 36 different shows in North America and Europe. He said every night of their tour together was "fun and spontaneous."
Another artist he's worked with is his own daughter, Antonia Bennett, who will open the show for him in York.
"I love having my daughter Antonia on the road with me," he said. "I remember when she was a little girl she loved to sing, and I often brought her out for a song on stage when I performed in Los Angeles."
Beyond singing: When he's not busy performing or recording, Bennett enjoys spending his time painting and has become a very popular artist.
"I can hardly believe it as I started out drawing pictures on the sidewalks of Astoria, Queens, (New York,) as a child, and now I have three of my original paintings in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution," he said in the email.
Bennett said his good friend Duke Ellington was the one to encourage him to move from sketches and drawings to something more serious. He said he feels that switching between painting and singing helps keep him in a creative and artistic zone that keeps him successful in both mediums.
He said he primarily paints landscapes or still life. While traveling he primarily paints with watercolor paints, and he saves his oil painting for when he is at home in New York City with his art studio.
"If I get burned out from singing, then I paint, and then when I need a break from painting, it's time to get back up onstage," he said.
Additionally, Bennett and his wife, Susan, work to keep arts courses in public schools. They started this initiative by founding the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria. They also founded the nonprofit Exploring the Arts, which partners with 33 public high schools in New York City and Los Angeles, according to Bennett.
He said students in strong arts programs tend to do better academically, and he and his wife hope to make the students better citizens by supporting them in their artistic endeavors.
The future: Bennett doesn't seem to have any thought of slowing down when it comes to his art. He still loves to perform his most well-known song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and still leaves the stage happy and satisfied every night.
"I love what I do, and it makes me feel good to give my very best to an audience for a few hours and forget about their own daily problems and troubles," he said.
For those wishing to follow in his footsteps, Bennett has just one piece of advice: don't. He gives the same advice his piano teacher gave him after World War II, and that's to not mimic other artists but to be yourself.
"Don't go chasing after trends or the quick bucks as that will get very tiring after a while and you won't be able to last," he said. "Stay with quality."
Tickets for Bennett's York performance start at $92 and can be purchased at StrandCapitol.org or by contacting the box office at 717-846-1111.