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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.

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