At some point, there’s bound to be a Tony Bennett movie. The legendary singer already knows who he’d want to portray him: Sean Penn.
But what would such a movie even look like? What period of his extraordinary life — his World War II service; his rise to swingin’ ’60s fame and social activism; his leaner, troubled years in the ’70s and ’80s; his modern comeback and collaborations with artists like Lady Gaga — would he most like to see on screen?
“Wow, that is an interesting question,” Bennett, 93, told the Times in a recent email interview. (Yes, Tony Bennett emails.) “For me, it might very well be the 1970s. That, when it gets written about, it’s referred to as a downturn. But for me, it was a very creative and freeing period.”
That’s around the time Bennett left his longtime label, Columbia, and started singing more standards, bringing jazz influences and friends like Lena Horne and Bill Evans into the mix.
“It was during that time that I was able to focus on the kinds of recordings that I wanted to make, and it wasn’t about bean counting. It was strictly an artistic rationale,” he said. “Since then, it has gone pretty well for me.”
Hard to argue that. At 93, Bennett is still going strong long after other singers would have called it quits. He’s still a lively and invigorating presence on stage, and despite the farewell-ish title of his new “I Left My Heart” Tour — which stops at St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater on Dec. 5 — he has no plans to quit.
“I still love to entertain people and make them happy,” he said. “It is a bit of a love affair with the audience each and every night.”
Here’s a bit more of our digital correspondence with the legendary crooner, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I have to confess, I was a little surprised when they said you might answer a few questions by email. What’s your digital diet like? Do you do a lot of texting, FaceTiming, social media, that sort of thing?
Usually when I get asked what is my favorite technology, I show off the drawing pencil that I keep in my suit jacket pocket, along with a sketchbook. But I do use an iPad most often when on planes, traveling. As long as you are communicating with proper involvement and mutual respect, then there is nothing wrong with technology. But I have to say that I cherish many of the handwritten letters that I have received from colleagues and friends over the years.
Are there aspects of your voice and show that you think are better now than they were a decade ago? Or two decades ago, or three, or five?
Well, I started out as a tenor and over time became more of a baritone, so that has changed things over the years. But when I was first starting out, and Pearl Bailey had given me a lift up when she put me in her revue at the Greenwich Inn, she told me, “Son, I can start you out, but it will take you 10 years just to learn how to walk on stage correctly.” So those are the things that you learn over time. So for me, it’s about giving it my all every night, and whenever I sing a song, to try to achieve the definitive version. That’s what keeps me going.
We’re at the end of the 2010s — your seventh full decade in the music business. What projects and experiences do you cherish most from the past 10 years?
Seventy years ... that’s hard for me to realize, as I feel like I am just getting started. Certainly working with Lady Gaga has been a highlight — whether in the studio or on tour, we always have a good time with one another. At first I understand why our collaboration might have seemed an odd pairing, but from the first time I met her, we understood each other, and I just love her. If you haven’t seen her “Jazz and Piano” show in Las Vegas, and you have the ability to get tickets and get on a plane, I have to say it’s one of the best nights of entertainment you can enjoy.
You fought in World War II, marched in Selma and have sung for nearly a dozen presidents. You’ve had a front-row seat to it all. What’s your assessment of America in 2019 — what we do right, what we can work on, and where we go in 2020?
It’s more about assessing America and about recognizing our shared humanity. Ella Fitzgerald was a beautiful lady, and she was never one to push her views on anyone, but she would often say to me, “Tony, we are all here.” And what she meant is we share this planet together for the time we are on it, and if we can understand that we have more in common with another person than we have differences, it would foster the right attitude of cooperation and compassion.
$70 and up. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5. Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 892-5767. themahaffey.com.