News & Politics

Celebrating Tony Bennett's 85th Birthday ... and His Activism

An interview with Tony Bennett's biographer David Evanier reveals the singing star as more than just a set of pipes.

Last week was Tony Bennett’s 85th birthday. He’s touring this month. And finishing up an album of duets with Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Norah Jones and others; he recorded “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse for the album shortly before her death last month. He continues to do with his music what G.K. Chesterton (I think) said one ought to do in a literary life, which is “not to be current but to make of oneself a current.”

One of the many gifts Bennett received for his birthday this year was All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett by David Evanier (Wiley, $27), which offers an eye-opening, nuanced and thorough understanding of the life of this superb singer. As Gary Giddins puts it, “The great thing about David Evanier’s biography . . .is that by looking closer at a great artist than the artist might have wished, it uncovers a man even more worthy of our admiration than we knew.” After reading Evanier’s biography of Bennett, then pre-ordering Bennett’s Duets II album (on sale September 20), we asked Evanier (a novelist and editor who has also written biographies of Jimmy Roselli and Bobby Darin), a few questions about his most recent subject. Much has been made about Bennett’s musicality, about his career renaissance, and about the longevity of both his musicality and his career, and those subjects are well worth examining and enjoying, but today we wanted to celebrate Tony Bennett as a patriot.

Progressive Reader: Just to recap. What are some of the most telling moments of Tony Bennett’s political activism?

David Evanier: Marching at Selma, refusing to sing in the South after witnessing a cross burning from his car, refusing to sing in apartheid South Africa, insisting that Count Basie have first billing over him wherever they appeared, insisting that black performers be allowed to stay in the hotels where they where starring in the nightclubs. Also, asked if he would support his sons if they decided to evade the draft, Bennett [who served at the front lines in Germany as a U.S. infantry soldier in World War II] said, “All the way. In fact, I’d say that’s exactly what I’ve brought them up to do. I’ve told them to hate war.”

Reader: What or who do you think most influenced Bennett’s politics?

Evanier: Tony was most influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, the voice of conscience of his generation; by his father, John, who expressed great compassion for human suffering and spoke to Tony about his heroes; by Paul Robeson and Gandhi; by his sister, Mary Chiappa, who also was deeply committed to civil rights; and by his older mentor, Frank Sinatra, who was a civil rights advocate when Tony was a soldier. Sinatra filmed “The House I Live In” about racial equality in 1945 and was outspoken on behalf of the civil rights movement from the outset. Harry Belafonte also had a profound effect on him and called upon Tony to take part in the march from Selma to Montgomery and in other civil rights activities. Tony responded with alacrity. He recalled later, “When Harry Belafonte told me to go down there, I asked him why he wanted me to go. And he explained to me there were many black bodies that were never reported. There were many, many that were tortured and killed . . . there were a couple of hundred people that were never reported. It was genocide. And it had to stop. It happened in our country, in the United States. It had to stop.” Belafonte, who was present at many concerts that Tony performed with Count Basie, said, “No white man ever stood in front of a black crew and sang with more credentials and belonging.” Tony was also influenced by his love for black music, which he considers the classic American music, and by his intimate friendships with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine and Louis Armstrong, and his love for the singing of Billie Holiday. Tony has a reverence for these artists, as expressed in his paintings of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and many other black artists. Tony’s painting of Louis Armstrong can still be found at the Louis Armstrong Home and Museum, where it is positioned directly across from Louis Armstrong’s desk, for that is where Satchmo placed it so he could see it every day.

In addition, Tony was influenced by growing up in a time when Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice. He came to identify with the great anti-fascist Italian artists like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini and novelists such as Ignazio Silone, Alberto Moravia, and Carlo Levi. It was not surprising that in the 1970s Vittorio De Sica wanted to make a documentary about Bennett’s life, but died before being able to do so.

Reader: Were there moments when his politics changed?

Evanier: Tony was always a political progressive, as he came from a family with profound progressive politics. He loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia, and he witnessed the Depression, including the economic struggles of his family who were very poor. His mother was a seamstress in a factory and brought piecework home with her at night. Tony and his sister waited for her at the subway when she came home, to carry the fabrics, and in the morning, they walked with her back to the subway. When his father died, Tony quit high school to support the family. But the most formative, searing experiences that forged his politics and made him into a militant occurred during World War Two. First of all, Tony profoundly understood the racist foundations of Nazism. He would never forget the experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. Another horrifying experience occurred at Thanksgiving in Germany when he ran into a black friend, Frank Smith, a member of Tony’s musical group from back home. Tony was overjoyed to run into his pal and invited him to have Thanksgiving dinner with him. A sergeant saw the two men together, stripped Tony of his medals, threw them on the ground and spat on them, demoted Tony and assigned him to graveyard detail (retrieving dead soldiers’ bodies from common graves and reburying them individual graves). Tony was stunned that such behavior could be condoned during a world war against racism. These experiences would never leave him.

Reader: Where there occasions when Bennett’s politics were challenged?

Evanier: There were times when Tony’s opposition to the Vietnam War got him into serious trouble. One reason he left Columbia Records was his determination to record a series of poems composer Alec Wilder had set to the music called “The Children’s Plea for Peace.” The work was based on the antiwar poems of the son of Bennett’s British friends Ken and Renee Gordon. The poems dealt with the Vietnam War from the point of view of a child. Columbia thought the piece was too politically controversial, even though no one in the company ever listened to it. Tony had been determined to record it, and waged a battle on its behalf. He walked out of an argument with Clive Davis, who was head of Columbia then, and other Columbia officials. As he walked out, he heard one of them express blatant racism: “We gotta get rid of that wop!” one of the men said.

Reader: What is the effect, if any, of Bennett’s music on his politics, and vice versa?

Evanier: Politics definitely influences Tony’s music. He believes that the mission of the singer is to uplift and encourage his audience and to impart optimism and hope for social change. He will not sing songs that are pro-war or have jingoist sentiments. He even insists that songs have no hint of negativity if possible. For instance, he refused to sing “Didn’t We,” because the song speaks of a couple that “almost made it.”

Reader: While researching All the Things You Are, what surprised you most about Tony Bennett’s and his political activities?

Evanier: I was really surprised (yes, and tickled) to learn that in his disgust with Columbia Records’ opposition to his doing “The Children’s Plea for Peace” and their opposition to his singing the great songs of the American songbook, Tony, a gentle soul and a pacifist, but uncompromising in his convictions, displayed a spine of steel. He had gone to Columbia and said he wanted to terminate his contract, but Columbia did not want to lose him. They sent him a new contract. It was thick; it had the heft of a phone book. Tony tore it in half with his bare hands. Columbia was not aware of this, and the business manager, Walter Dean, invited Tony up to his office to consummate the new contract. Tony walked into his office, struck right out and socked Dean in the jaw and knocked him on the floor. Tony said “Good day” and walked out. I learned in writing about Tony that on many occasions that while that smiling face is real, behind it is a man of profound convictions.

Reader: Do you think most of his fans share his politics? It’s probably difficult to have any sense of that, but do you?

Evanier: This is difficult to measure, but I have a strong sense that many of his fans share his politics and that part of their love for him is that he had courage during the civil rights movement and still has the courage to take courageous positions against war and on behalf of human rights. Many fans, learning that I was writing his biography, expressed this sentiment among the very first things they said to me when they told me how much they loved Tony. For many, many of his fans, his music, his art and his politics are interlinked.

Reader: There’s a part of All the Things You Are that describes what Tony Bennett did to console and support New Yorkers just after 9/11. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Evanier: Bennett expressed his feelings at a Radio City Music Hall concert two weeks after the attacks. He did not speak directly of the attacks. Instead he sang his autobiographical song, “I’ve Come Home Again,” which is part of his album, “Astoria,” about his struggles as a young man and his love for New York City. When he concluded the song, he paused and 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 in an ovation, wept, applauded, and cheered. Around New York in those days, Bennett could also be found in small jazz clubs, always just by himself, modest, approachable without bodyguards or an entourage, helping to boost the morale of the city by his encouraging and warm presence, sometimes standing up and going to the podium and singing a song on impulse, to audiences who were astonished and overjoyed to see him.

Reader: Bennett grew up during the Depression, in Queens, New York. You make that seem like a halcyon time.

Evanier: Yes, Tony cherishes his memories of those days, when people banded together and helped each other. His own family was poor but very loving. His parents, aunts and uncles would gather in Astoria Gardens on Sundays, place Tony, his sister and brother in a circle, and serenade the children with song and with their mandolins and guitars. Then the children, led by Tony, would serenade the family in turn. Tony remembers that time as a period of optimism and hopefulness, and tries to instill it into audiences with his own buoyant and joyful approach to music. Tony was a singing waiter, and has often said that if he’d had to be a singing waiter the rest of his life, he would have been happy. He has never forgotten his roots or his obligation and love for working people. He has always tried to give back, and the culmination was his founding of the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts in Astoria, where children of limited financial means now enjoy a wonderful education in a beautiful and optimistic surrounding. Tony can be found at the school on a regular basis, mingling with the children, checking up on them and offering them encouragement. Typical of Tony, as well, is that he named the school not for himself but after the singer who most influenced him, Frank Sinatra.

Reader: Do you have any sense of what Tony Bennett thinks of this current recession and our current troubles?

Evanier: Tony is a passionate supporter of President Obama and of the policies of progressive politics. 

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