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The Benefits of Being Tony Bennett

November 26, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Bennett really has the world on the string these days. The impeccable crooner, who has given the world "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Because of You" and "Rags to Riches," is at the pinnacle of his popularity.

He's adored by members of the Generation X crowd and their mothers. He's good buds with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Bennett even got his own "Unplugged" concert on MTV last year. And the album from that concert went on to win the 1995 Grammy for Album of the Year.

Bennett also is being honored almost everywhere he performs. It was "Tony Bennett Day" in Los Angeles on Nov. 2. "It's my age actually," says Bennett, who is engagingly nice and easygoing during an interview. "I am 69 and, all of a sudden, everybody is giving me these honors. I had one in San Francisco about a month ago. I sang in Union Square. That was wonderful. New York City, I sang at Radio City. That was a a great experience. Each mayor gave me a 'Tony Bennett Day.' "

On Oct. 16, Bennett received, along with President Bill Clinton, Betty Ford and the late Frank Wells, a distinguished service award from Columbia University. The award was presented at a concert benefit for the university's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse and was taped at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

That concert, "Tony Bennett: Here's to the Ladies," airs Friday on CBS. The one-hour special features Bennett performing songs from his newest album, "Here's to the Ladies," with Roseanne, Brandy, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Liza Minnelli and Patti LaBelle.

"I thought the audience was wonderful," Bennett says, relaxing in his suite at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills before yet another concert, this one at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. "You know when the audiences are right with you."

Bennett jokes that he does so many benefit concerts he's actually been dubbed "Tony Benefit." It was his mentor Bob Hope who, more than 40 years ago, showed him the benefits of doing benefits.

"I was [performing] in Greenwich Village and he found me and took me up to the Paramount [Theatre]. I have been on the road ever since. I really thought of him through the years as a role model. Bob was always the kind of guy who was easy to talk to. You pointed him in any direction and he would play a date. So I adopted his philosophy. I haven't regretted it either. I believe in just showing up and being gregarious with the public. I personally feel I have to give back. Something good always comes out of it. There's a balance about it."

It's easy to see Bennett is just having a lot of fun performing these days. He recalls a recent conversation with Doris Day, to whom he pays tribute on his new album. "She said something I have been thinking about a lot lately because it's so wonderful when you hit it big in the entertainment world," he says. "She was telling me how much fun she has. She said, 'Tony, isn't it fun that you are doing this and entertaining people and singing and performing?' And it's really true. It is a give-and-take kind of thing. The audience makes you feel big if they like you. "

Bennett's thrilled that he has been able to bridge the musical generation gap and introduce young audiences to the songs of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen (his personal favorite) and Johnny Mercer.

"I was trained to sing for everybody," Bennett explains. "I used to do seven shows a day at the Paramount. You started at 10 a.m. and did an hour-and-25-minute show. It was a great place because the management would tell us, 'Don't sing to one group because in the morning you have the teen-agers. In the afternoon, you have the seniors, and in the evening you have your young lovers and married couples.' By the end of the day you sang to everybody. So you had to find songs that everybody loved, not just one group. It actually made me lean toward quality music." For example, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

It was Ralph Sharon, Bennett's musical director for the past 30 years, who brought that song to Bennett. "We were [performing] in Hot Springs, Ark., and he said, 'We are on our way up to San Francisco and I know that people really love that city. Some friends who write for Billie Holiday wrote this song and if you did it, it will go over big in that town.' At rehearsal up in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel, people would run up to me and say, 'You have got to record this song.'

"I thought this would be a good local hit. I had no idea it would be the signature song that would sustain me right through the years."

He starts to chuckle. "Do you know Dondi the cartoon?" Bennett asks as he walks across the room, picks up a small green box and sits back down on the sofa. "Dondi was the little kid with the big eyes. I was signing autographs yesterday at Tower Records in San Francisco. There was this little kid" who looked like the comic-strip character and was carrying something in his hands, Bennett says.

"His nose just came up over the counter. His mother said, 'Show it to Mr. Bennett. He made this for you.' "

Bennett opens up the box. Inside is a big, red, stuffed heart made of cloth. "I got this last night," Bennett says, grinning from ear to ear. "I said [to the little boy], 'I finally found my heart. All of these years I have been looking for it and I finally found it!' "

"Tony Bennett: Here's to the Ladies" airs Friday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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