Tony Bennett Steps Out

Lady Gaga isn't the first pop star to go mad for this legendary master of standards

Tony Bennett Credit: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Tony Bennett is loving life and not because his album Steppin' Out is selling like Florida lottery tickets. Nor is it because he has a new-found cachet among the young folks (it seemed as if every artist at the MTV awards lined up to meet him). No, Tony Bennett is loving life because he's just that way. Spend enough time with him and you find yourself saying, "You're right, Sammy Davis Jr. was a beautiful person." As Bennett talks from the cozy confines of his New York City apartment, it becomes clear that he's a living repository of music history: After all, this is a man who mentions Pearl Bailey, Linda Ronstadt, Irving Berlin and Flea in the same conversation.

Why did your son-manager Danny start courting the alternative market for you?

He's of that age that he knows what's happening on the mod scene, the contemporary scene. So I was the first one that they did on The Simpsons. Then there's a rock station in Boston. Danny's very friendly with someone up there, and that was the first time that they put me on the air. It was unheard of for that kind of format. And we had fun, clowning around. Then the phones lit up.

So every time Danny tells you you're doing something crazy like The Simpsons, you just say, "Sure, what the heck"?

[Laughs] I've learned to become very flexible about everything.

Then you did a series of acoustic shows with acts like the Lemonheads and Teenage Fanclub, of all people.

They call it "unplugged," but I've been acoustical for years, you know? So, I just showed up with my trio, and we did three or four numbers, and then in each area — Boston, Dallas, San Francisco — each one kinda stopped the show. It was like a football game. People were chanting, "Ton-EE! Ton-EE! Ton-EE!" It was terrific. The young people are a lot different than the older audience. They're really with it, they really know what's happening. What I love about it is that this kind of mass adulation from the young audience happened to me a long time ago, but I didn't know how to handle it. I was pretty young and nervous as a son of a gun.

I was told you were nervous before you went on recently at an acoustic show in Virginia.

I always do that. It's so funny, I call'em happy butterflies. But it's not nervousness, it's really caring.

What do younger artists say to you backstage?

Well, they're thrilled to meet me. Like me, they like to just go out and entertain the audience and just make everybody feel good. I don't like the cool school where an artist will say: "I don't care what they think. I'm going to do what I do, and if you don't like it, you can shove it." I like performers like Louis Armstrong or Sinatra.

You never succumbed to bad musical trends, did you?

I don't mind anything trendy, as long as I know it's gonna last. See, there's two people that interest me, the late Johnny Carson [laughs] and Merv Griffin. Both of them have sustained longer than anyone else as talk-show hosts. They've always got a tie. They've always got a great band. If you're going to learn something, learn from the virtuosos.

Of recent talk shows, you went on The Jon Stewart Show, too, right?

Boy, he's got a lot on the ball. He's going somewhere. He's very with it.

Do you watch MTV?

Oh, yeah. I like the fact that you can tell a story in two minutes, because that's what I do with my pop songs. I'm a storyteller, really. And because I paint, I admire what happens on these MTV shows because of the graphics, the photography. I'm knocked out with all the innovations they've come up with.

What, exactly, is up with you and the Chili Peppers?

I made great friends with them. That was really unusual.

You and Flea seem to have a special bond.

I really like him. I like Anthony, too. I can't believe it. When I was a kid, I saw the great Jimmy Durante, and he was so off the wall that you wouldn't believe it. He was more far out than Flea and Anthony, but they remind me of him. When I won the Grammy, that's how I met them. Here I am standing around in a suit and tie, and Anthony is completely naked, and Flea had tattoos all over him. The only thing I could think of to say was "My mother likes you." Ever since then, we hit it off! [Laughs]

What do you schlep around the house in?

I have a painting outfit when I paint; it's full of paint. And I have some nice, cozy slippers.

How often do you paint?

Oh, every day. I use watercolors on the road; they're not messy.

I saw a sketch you did of Sting.

He's fantastic. Fantastic.

You travel all over. What do you think is an underrated U.S. city?

Cincinnati. Family values are still very important. Minneapolis is good, too. And there's a renaissance going on in Chicago. There's no graffiti. Beautiful suburbs. More than that, I've been accepted there as a painter almost more than as a singer. They gave me a Tony Bennett day on my birthday.

You're so positive. What's your secret?

This is really the best age I've ever encountered. I really know what's happening as far as entertaining an audience. Then to have all this enthusiasm thrown at me — I'm having so much fun, because I know just what to do, which is have a good sense of humor about it. It's just the best time of my life.