Tony Bennett, still touring at 91, does not need to explain himself

Published January 31
Updated February 1

It starts with the number by Tony Bennettís name. Big, buxom 9, so curvaceous it ought to tip over. Straight, slender 1, planted dead in the dirt like a dart.

Ninety-one. Tony Bennett is 91 years old.

Maybe itís not all that crazy. People turn 91 every day. Tonyís 91. Your Meemawís 91.

Itís only when you watch the man perform that the number starts broasting your brain. For 90 minutes heís standing in the spotlight, on his feet the whole time, shuffling a little, even jogging back out for the encore. He plays chicken with the music, daring his voice to betray him each time his band decrescendos, and he always wins. Silence doesnít shake him. At 91, what can?

"I think from doing it so many years, you learn what to leave out and what to put in," Bennett says, breaking down his ageless show from his home in New York City, in an interview that started off pretty well, and ended up ... well, hang on, weíll get there.

"Itís very effective, because you donít waste anyoneís time. It doesnít become boring. You just go right to where you get what you want to get to the audience."

Tony Bennett is 91. Heís older than the talkie. Heís older than packaged sliced bread. Heís older than all of Fifth Harmony combined.

Heís got this thing down to a science. Maybe he doesnít need to explain himself.

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When Bennett performs at the Mahaffey Theater on Feb. 9, itíll be his 10th local show since turning 80. That is not a misprint. He has played here more as an octo- and nonagenarian than the Eagles have in their entire history.

But, see, Bennett is history. He grew up in Queens, in the Depression, the son of a shopkeep and seamstress. He loved jazz and art but was drafted like the rest, marching from France across the Rhine near the end of World War II. He sang in the Army and never really stopped; his first amateur demo, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams in 1949, caught the ear of Columbiaís legendary A&R man Mitch Miller. He hasnít looked back since.

Bennettís career spans the entirety of modern popular culture. He appeared on Johnny Carsonís first Tonight Show. He won the first of his 18 Grammys ó Record of the Year for I Left My Heart in San Francisco ó in 1963, the year before the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. His latest album just won another. He has sung for kings and queens and every president since Eisenhower, save Nixon. Frank Sinatra called him the best pop singer he ever saw.

When you consider all that, keeping an audience rapt for 90 minutes doesnít seem so daunting, does it?

"It seems to go very fast," he says. "Itís never the same twice. You never know; whatever is happening in the moment."

A performer of Bennettís stature could skate by on audience goodwill. But heís not having any of that. Bennett works for his ovations. When he sings But Beautiful or The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, his band drops deep into the mix, putting his nine-decade-old voice on delicate display. Heís on a high wire up there, baring his voice for critique. On Fly Me to the Moon, he drops the mic entirely and just belts the thing out a cappella. He does it so you can hear every fraction of a decibel, so you can feel like youíre almost cheek to cheek.

"I think it communicates much better when itís intimate," he says. "Itís like one to one with the audience if they can understand everything that youíre doing."

One thing he doesnít seem to care that much about is what heís singing. On the surface, you might look at a setlist that includes songs like Iím Old Fashioned, How Do You Keep the Music Playing and Our Love Is Here to Stay and think: Hereís a guy looking back from the twilight of his life, singing what weíre all feeling about the merciless passage of time.

Nothing against Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin, but Bennettís not here for the lyrics. Heís here for the melody. He wants to sing like Tony Bennett, because he knows thatís what the people pay for. And he doesnít have much time for between-song banter, either.

"You donít want to bore them with extra words and extra time on stage," he says. "You just get to what you want to say, and it becomes very entertaining for everyone, because itís not boring."

Bennett will do what he does as long as heís got the stamina. He works out for an hour three or four times a week ó enough to keep him fit to deliver the show he knows he can. At his age, itís all he can ask.

"I just feel very fortunate that Iím still in shape," he says, "and I just give it a full shot so that the audience enjoys themselves."

And he never doubts his voice? As the years tick by, he never hesitates about his ability to command a room?

"If I had any hesitation," he chuckles, "I wouldnít do it."

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So that thing about Bennett having no time these days for extra words? It kind of applied to our chat.

Bennett has always seemed like one of the great, gregarious good guys. Heís got to be, right? Could a man this iconic, a guy who both marched with King in Selma and helped liberate a concentration camp at Landsberg, be anything but the menschiest of mensches?

I guess Iíll just say this: I mustíve caught him on an off day.

We start out fine, making small talk about the weather in New York ("Itís pretty nice today"), his trip to Florida ("Itís such a nice area") and his vitality on stage ("Oh, thank you very much!"). But before long, his answers grow clipped and uninterested. We stop clicking. We lose the rhythm.

Whatís it like having his daughter Antonia join him on tour?

"Sheís a lot of fun to be with. I have a wonderful daughter."

Do artists in their 60s and 70s ever approach him for tips about how to keep going into their 90s?

"Itís never happened that way."

What about Amy Winehouse? What life advice did he give her?

"I donít think I gave her any advice. She was doing very well."

And Lady Gaga? Surely she picked his brain at some point, right?

"Sheís great. She knows everything sheís doing."

Hmm. Isnít there any advice Bennett can offer performers who must wonder how heís still able to do what heís doing in 2018?

"The whole idea is to just be a good person."

And then the phone goes dead. Twelve minutes in, and weíre done. Maybe itís a bum connection ó Bennett has a land line; heís old-school that way ó or maybe he has just had enough and hung up. I canít blame him. At 91, heís got far better things to do.

Besides, at the end of the day, if the last words Tony Bennett ever says to me are Be a good person, I can live with that. The man has lived one of the richest, fullest lives of any American performer. That heís still going at his age ó did I mention heís 91? ó is just another chapter in his fascinating life.

The best part: Heís nowhere near the end yet.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.