On a balmy September night in New York City, “Tony Bennett” has just taken the Radio City Music Hall stage.
Except it’s not the Tony Bennett — the iconic crooner who marked his 90th birthday a month before. It’s actor Alec Baldwin, sporting an exact replica of the real Tony Bennett’s wavy, steely mane. Greeting his chortling audience, Baldwin launches into a bang-on Bennett impression, noting that “when you’re 90, any day above ground is cause for celebration,” then asking for a round of applause for the fire exits, just in case there’s a 90-candle birthday cake somewhere in the joint.
The real Tony Bennett — Anthony Dominick Benedetto to his mama — sits a few rows from the stage with his wife Susan Benedetto, having waded through the packed house moments before. Well-wishers crowd around him, hoping for a handshake, a photo or a few words with the man we’re all here to celebrate. And for the next three hours, the Radio City stage hosts some of entertainment’s finest, who honor Bennett with speech and song, not only for his contribution to music but also as a friend, fine artist, human rights activist, arts education champion and all-around righteous guy.
It’s a stunning night and an appropriately glam-meets-good-fun tribute to 90 years lived with purpose and gusto. And when Bennett himself takes the stage near the end of the evening, it’s easy to imagine that more superb years are, indeed, yet to come.
Now here’s the good news. NBC cameras captured the evening so you, too, can be there. The two-hour Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come features performances and highlights from a night filled with standing ovations, impromptu “Happy Birthday” serenades and once-in-a-lifetime performances (a companion CD hits stores Dec. 16). Launching the evening musically is Bennett’s most unlikely buddy, pop star Lady Gaga, who met her mentor at a 2011 charity gala and sang “The Lady Is a Tramp” — which she performs now — on his Grammy-winning Duets II album that same year, cementing their personal and professional bond. Stunning in a platinum Grecian-style gown, a Bennett-drawn and -signed tattoo proudly displayed on her bare biceps, Gaga kills the tune, then joins her bestie in the audience. Susan moves over a seat so Gaga can rest her head on Tony’s shoulder as cameras flash away. Later, she’ll return to sing a show-stopping “La Vie en Rose” that mesmerizes the French journalist beside me.
“[Gaga] has that young audience — she doesn’t have my audience, you know?” Bennett muses during our phone conversation a few weeks later. “By performing with us, she gave me her audience, and I gave her my audience — so that’s everybody. [Laughs] It’s a wonderful relationship that we have, and I thought she was wonderful that night. She’s always shocking me, because she’s got this wonderful thing that’s coming up where she’s singing for the Super Bowl. All of a sudden, she came out and she says ‘I want Tony Bennett on this show!’” I couldn’t believe it! She just said, ‘I want Tony Bennett to do this show with me.’ Just the fact that she thinks that way is so wonderful. We’re not competitive with one another at all. We get along with each other. She has a wonderful warm family, and we get along great with them, too.”
Next, actor Bruce Willis arrives onstage to tout Tony and Susan’s arts foundation, Exploring the Arts, which boasts 33 partner schools that embrace a creative approach to education and pursuing a viable career in the arts. Students from several of them cheer boisterously in the audience. “It’s a blessing to know that’s going on in the work that my wife is doing for these schools,” Bennett says. “And I remember their reaction. That whole group cheered, and it felt so nice to hear them!”
“My wife is a wonderful teacher,” he continues. “We ended up starting this, and now I have 33 high schools in America that get kids ready for college. They have access of a creative approach to an education. They learn painting, music, and art — and to keep creating even after they leave school and to have a creative attitude about what they can contribute to the world. The school that we started in my hometown of Astoria, which is about 30 minutes from New York City — a beautiful little town that I grew up in — it’s especially wonderful to know that it made an effect there. It’s a matter of promoting creativeness out of everybody. That they have to work to make a living, but to enjoy that work.”
Then Willis segues into Bennett’s own fine-art endeavors, noting that the lifelong painter’s portrait of Duke Ellington is part of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. I ask Bennett how his music informs his painting and vice versa.
“That’s a wonderful question!” he says. “Because when you paint, you learn so much about singing. When you sing, you learn so much about painting. … It’s knowing what to leave out, not what to put in. It makes the painting spontaneous and alive. It’s not just like, ‘Well, it’s not finished yet!’ You leave it unfinished. It’s the same with music, and it’s the same with art. You keep it alive.” The lesson in restraint came courtesy of a pair of surprising mentors — comedians Jack Benny and George Burns. “They met me when I first had hit songs with ‘Because of You’ and ‘Cold, Cold Heart.’ Million-selling records. They said, ‘Now son, [you] really hit there with these two songs, but it’s going to take you seven years to learn how to do it.’ Boy, were they right!” he chuckles.
To honor Bennett’s renowned social activism, Stevie Wonder takes the stage to perform “Visions” (“Have I lived to see the milk and honey land? Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands?”). As he sings, moving images of Bennett marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the third and decisive civil rights march from Selma and performing on a makeshift stage made of caskets appear behind him. And finally, after performances by Michael Bublé, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., k.d. lang, Diana Krall, Rufus Wainwright, Kevin Spacey and Andrea Bocelli (whose “Ave Maria” with his eponymous foundation’s “Voices of Haiti” children’s choir brings down the house), it’s Bennett’s turn at the mic. The legend does flawless renditions of “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” And then — as the audience cheers — he launches into his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Later, I ask Bennett when he first heard a piece of music, a voice or perhaps a song, that made him realize music would be his lifelong career.
“Well, it’s so funny that you mentioned that,” he muses. “There is something that really happened in my life. We were in a Southern town, and rehearsing in the afternoon and here was a bartender setting up a bar for the evening’s performance. We found the song [I Left My Heart in] “San Francisco,” and because we were going to San Francisco for the first time, we said, ‘Let’s do that song when we go.’
“As we were singing it, the bartender came up from behind the bar, and he said ‘I don’t mean to interrupt you guys, but if you record that song, I’m going to be the first one to buy that record.’ And that was the tipoff to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Though he has earned days of ease, the ageless Bennett is still rarely in one place for long, packing his days with tour dates and new recording projects, and promoting his new book, Just Getting Started. The memoir represents his latest ruminations on living what is widely known as “the Zen of Bennett.”
“It comes from a love of performing,” he reflects. “I get so much reaction from my audiences throughout the world. I’ve been sold out at least 99 percent of the time, in whatever country I’ve been in. I’m blessed with the fact that the public admires my work, and I just never want to let them down. I like to give them a full performance, so they walk out feeling very good about what happened that night.”
Tonight, with the help of his friends, that mission is more than accomplished.
Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come premieres Tuesday, Dec. 20 at 9/8CT on NBC.