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

Tony Bennett at his 90th birthday celebration, held at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York, Dec. 1, 2016. In his ninth decade alone, Bennett has sold 10 million recordings, including two best-selling albums of duets. â\u0080\u009CI could have retired 16 years ago,â\u0080\u009D Bennett said, â\u0080\u009Cbut I just love what Iâ\u0080\u0099m doing.â\u0080\u009D (Amy Lombard/The New York Times)
Published Feb. 1, 2018

It starts with the number by Tony Bennett's 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 it's not all that crazy. People turn 91 every day. Tony's 91. Your Meemaw's 91.

It's only when you watch the man perform that the number starts broasting your brain. For 90 minutes he's 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 doesn't 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, we'll get there.

"It's very effective, because you don't waste anyone's time. It doesn't become boring. You just go right to where you get what you want to get to the audience."

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

He's got this thing down to a science. Maybe he doesn't need to explain himself.

• • •

When Bennett performs at the Mahaffey Theater on Feb. 9, it'll 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 Columbia's legendary A&R man Mitch Miller. He hasn't looked back since.

Bennett's career spans the entirety of modern popular culture. He appeared on Johnny Carson's first Tonight Show. He won the first of his 18 Grammys — Record of the Year for I Left My Heart in San Francisco — 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 doesn't seem so daunting, does it?

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

A performer of Bennett's stature could skate by on audience goodwill. But he's 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. He's 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 you're almost cheek to cheek.

"I think it communicates much better when it's intimate," he says. "It's like one to one with the audience if they can understand everything that you're doing."

One thing he doesn't seem to care that much about is what he's singing. On the surface, you might look at a setlist that includes songs like I'm Old Fashioned, How Do You Keep the Music Playing and Our Love Is Here to Stay and think: Here's a guy looking back from the twilight of his life, singing what we're all feeling about the merciless passage of time.

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

"You don't 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 it's not boring."

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

"I just feel very fortunate that I'm 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 wouldn't do it."

• • •

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. He's 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 I'll just say this: I must've caught him on an off day.

We start out fine, making small talk about the weather in New York ("It's pretty nice today"), his trip to Florida ("It's 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.

What's it like having his daughter Antonia join him on tour?

"She's 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?

"It's never happened that way."

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

"I don't think I gave her any advice. She was doing very well."

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

"She's great. She knows everything she's doing."

Hmm. Isn't there any advice Bennett can offer performers who must wonder how he's still able to do what he's doing in 2018?

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

And then the phone goes dead. Twelve minutes in, and we're done. Maybe it's a bum connection — Bennett has a land line; he's old-school that way — or maybe he has just had enough and hung up. I can't blame him. At 91, he's 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 he's still going at his age — did I mention he's 91? — is just another chapter in his fascinating life.

The best part: He's nowhere near the end yet.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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