Tony Bennett’s Heart is Most Definitely in New York

September 13, 2011 at 6:00 am

Tony Bennett is famous for serenading San Francisco but he’s has had a passionate love affair with New York ever since he was a boy. Bennett will celebrate his 85th birthday with a performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Sept. 18 as well as the release of a new studio album, “Duets II.” The author of a new biography of Bennett pays tribute to Tony Bennett as the quintessential New Yorker.

At the age of 10, dressed in a little white suit, Tony Bennett stood alongside Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at the opening of the Triborough Bridge. The mayor and the young boy walked  together side by side, leading the throng of thousands across the bridge singing “Marching Along Together.”

As a young man he would stand on the banks of the Queens edge of the East River and longingly gaze across at the spectacular skyline of Manhattan and wonder when his big break would come. He had dropped out of high school when his father died to help his mother financially. A seamstress in a factory, Anna Benedetto would give Tony 20 cents to go into Manhattan for the day to find work (he would always return 10 cents to her). He sang at every joint in Astoria that would have him, including the Hot Dog, which was shaped like one.

Click through the photo gallery to see Tony Bennett at various stages in his career:

He would hang out on Swing Street on 52nd Street, where he first saw Billie Holiday and Ben Webster and all the jazz greats. He’d walk to 59th Street and gaze at the buildings looking out on Central Park, vowing to his pals that someday he would live there.

A painter before he became a singer, Bennett had always dreamed of a studio that would catch the afternoon light so he could paint it over and over; he found it when he moved to Central Park South. He became a successful singer first, but his determination to paint was sealed when his friend Duke Ellington told him, “Do two things well. Be creative all day long.”

And he has stayed close by the park — always gravitating toward it over the years, living close by and directly across from it, with only a short-lived, unhappy sojourn in Los Angeles. Essentially he has never strayed from the New York streets. Today, he is still a walker in the city, never with an entourage or a bodyguard, popping up in little jazz clubs across the city where he often admires the artistic achievements of lesser-known singers.

Tony Bennett sketching the Gapstow Bridge in Central Park Friday, Aug. 4, 1995. Much of his artwork includes iconic New York City street scenes. AP/Clark Jones

Leaving his apartment with a sketch pad or an easel, he will walk across the street  from his apartment house into the park and paint. And his paintings are frequently New York scenes, like “New York Yellow Cab No. 1,” in which yellow cabs swish down a nighttime Manhattan avenue or “The Plaza,” his painting of the Plaza hotel,  which  beautifully renders the hotel in impressionistic blotches of dark green, light green, yellow and an accent of orange.

Bennett is a citizen of the world, yet he is revered because of  his rootedness. Even his voice, as jazz critic Whitney Balliett has noted, has the New York streets in it — a gravel, gruff, unpretentious sound with hickory smoke in it. It is the voice of a friend, as accessible as Bennett actually is when strangers greet him on the street. He has never forgotten from whence he came: the working class, bustling, vibrant neighborhood of Astoria.

Bennett with his mentor Frank Sinatra in July 1980. Bennett turned 85 on Aug. 3, 2011. Sinatra would have been 95. AP/FILE.

In 2001, Bennett founded the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts in his old neighborhood, a public school  for struggling young artists. He named it not for himself, but for Sinatra, his mentor, who was an early advocate for civil rights and equality.  Today, the sleek five-story building is filled with eager, joyous students, studying dance, music, drama, film and fine arts programs in state-of-the-art classrooms.

I was overwhelmed at the sight of it, the openness, the brightness, the yellow colors, the spaciousness. Bennett oversaw the design, visiting the school every few months.  He performs at graduation. The children know his connection the school. Hannah Speiller, a student, told me, “He comes around, he’s at performances, he stops in your classrooms to check on you. He’s just like a heartwarming guy, and you can start any conversation with him you want.”

Traces of Bennett are simply everywhere in New York.  You go to Louis Armstrong’s house in Corona, now a museum, and you see, across from Satchmo’s desk, where he could view it every day, Bennett’s painting of him. When asked who painted it, Armstrong would reply, “Just a boy from the neighborhood.”

After 9/11,  Bennett kept his thoughts to himself at first, but by Sept. 29 of 2011 he expressed himself at his concert at Radio City Music Hall. He did not mention the attacks, but he sang “I’ve Come Home Again” from his “Astoria” album. When he concluded the song he said simply, “I’m from a little town called Astoria.”

He paused and said, “You know, I gotta tell you…I love this city.” The audience stood and cheered.

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