As tributes continue to pour in for Tony Bennett, we’re revisiting his remarkable 1999 interview with Hot Press…
Originally published in Hot Press in August 1999
How TONY BENNETT survived drugs, near-death and the mafia, to become possibly the coolest man on the planet at the age of 72.
Interview: Joe Jackson.
Tony Bennett, cool as ever, didn’t miss a beat. Dining in a Dublin restaurant, he simply paused a moment, raised his left eyebrow ever-so-slightly and shot a look in my direction as if to say no sweat, I can deal with that question. Not so, however, his business associate sitting at the same table with us, who seemed to suddenly break into a cold sweat, as if thinking what kind of jerk is this? We bring the guy for dinner and he asks Tony about his connections to the Mafia!
But even though I did hit Anthony Dominick Benedetto with that question during our first Hot Press interview, in 1995, and Bennett did, indeed, deal with it, his reply was more like a smokescreen than a truth; a set of diversionary tactics designed purely to deflect further enquiry.
That was fours years ago. In the meantime, the even-cooler-than-ever Tony Bennett singer, much-acclaimed painter and maybe even sole successor to Sinatra in the post-crooning stakes has published his autobiography wherein he delves a little deeper into more contentious issues.
But in conversation he goes even deeper. For example, in his book The Good Life, Tony claims that back in 1970 part of the reason he finally broke away from his nearly 20-year contract with CBS was because the rock-culture-obsessed Clive Davis asked him to record a song that was previously recorded by his label-mate Janis Joplin.This piled on top of what pop-classicist Tony would no doubt call a lot of contemporary crap he was being forced to record such as ‘My Cherie Amour’ and ‘MacArthur Park’ made him literally ill: the man threw up in the studio. At least that’s the tale as told in Clive Davis biography. But, as the man himself reveals, there was far more to it than that:
“I did get physically ill, for an entire record date, fighting with them through the whole session,” he recalls, this time sans business associate in his room in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel.
“Whereas now, Danny (Tony’s son and manager) sees to it that everything at a session is natural and relaxed, which is the best way to make music. It’s positive energy. But I didn’t object to all those songs! Actually, ‘My Cherie Amour’ was okay. Even (laughs) ‘MacArthur Park’ I got through by leaving the chorus out! I just did the verse and stopped there! The cake melting in the rain and all that, I just thought wait a minute here, this is too much! And years later Sinatra did it that way too! Cut out the chorus!”
But was it the suggestion that he do a Janis tune which finally broke Tony?
“Not just that, it was the whole thing at CBS at the time,” he responds. “You see Clive did just want to go with – possibly he refutes this, but it’s true – getting rid of, say, the whole classical department. It wasn’t selling records. It became a (clicks fingers) bottom-line thing. Whatever was selling was okay. Not just rock. Streisand was selling, whatever. But anything that didn’t sell, it was ‘let’s get rid of it’. Which is insane. Because the back catalogue is what leads to the survival of a record company, building up that great library of recordings.
“But what happened was that Clive actually called for Duke Ellington to come visit him. And he said ‘Mr. Ellington, we’re going to have to drop you’. And Duke said ‘why?’ And he said ‘Well, your music isn t selling’. And Duke said ‘I think you’ve got it the wrong way around, Clive. I make the music, you re supposed to sell it’. That was in Judy Collins’ book and that explains the whole thing, at that time. And sure enough, financially, he was swinging and doing great and all that. But there is a difference between Woolworths and Tiffanys, you get my point?”
The irony, of course, is that Bennett’s back catalogue has been re-issued over the past few years and is probably selling better now than ever before.
“That’s what I mean!” he says, laughing lightly. “It’s like Donald O’Connor told me once, if you do something good, wait at least five years for it to be appreciated.”
Suddenly, Tony Bennett’s laughter evaporates.
“But, as for Janis Joplin, no, it wasn’t simply just being asked to do the Janis song. I thought what happened to Janis Joplin was horrible. That’s why I regurgitated. They got so rude and crude (in CBS). They actually got this young girl, hyped her up with all kinds of drugs, unimaginable drugs, way beyond anything you might expect and then these salesmen would put her on a table in a room and tell her to lift her dress and have her do all kinds of weird things.”
Tony shakes his head and pauses.
“The thing is, I grew up in an era when, whoever was the best, went to the top. Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole. They made it because of their professionalism and artistry. But in the mid 50s there was one big change when Columbia got a hold of Rex Harrison and they acquired 51% of My Fair Lady. Before that every penny counted at Columbia, to make the company work. But after the success of My Fair Lady, they made so much money they never had to worry about it again. They just began to record everybody, thinking ‘what the hell, whatever sticks, we might get another Presley, another Beatles, another Michael Jackson’. So that became the age of obsolescence for the record company. That’s where it all started. So marketing Janis? Just part of all that.”
Speaking of Janis and unimaginable drugs, one has to wonder if there was any point at which drugs actually helped Bennett s own creativity in terms of his music – as many jazz musicians at the time seemed to believe to be the case in terms of their own work. Tony’s ultimate musical hero, Louis Armstrong, for example, is now known to have smoked marijuana every day of his adult life, specifically before gigs.
“Well, whatever about the dope Louis did smoke, I do know he often felt held-back or weighed down by, let’s say, not always great musicians in some of the bands he played with!” says Tony. “So he did say that at times like that he’d just freeze out that band and play to the band in his head! But, in terms of drugs, I think it’s more that you do feel you are being great in everything you do. But the truth is that you never really top that first time you try drugs. That realisation hit me and it was one of quite a few things that made me stop.”
Another, presumably, was the fact that, at one point in the early 1970s, Tony nearly died as a result of cocaine abuse. Indeed, he believes he did die, momentarily. In his book he describes the evolution of his drug habit in these terms:
“On top of everything else, the 70s drug scene was getting out of control. At every big party I’d go to, people were high on something. Cocaine flowed as freely as champagne and soon I began joining in the festivities. At first it seemed like the hip thing to do, but as time went on it got harder and harder to refuse it when it was offered. Compounded with my pot smoking, the whole thing started sneaking up on me.”
In 1977 Tony’s beloved mother died. “She,” he says, “had been my one guiding star though all my ups and downs. When she passed away I thought I’d never recover. I was so overcome with grief I actually wondered if I might be losing my mind. And I found I was using drugs to ease my pain.”
Then, one night, the inevitable. Under even more pressure as a result of an IRS investigation into his financial affairs which made Tony begin to fear the IRS might take away his home, Bennett, in frustration, overindulged, though in what he doesn’t say.
“I realised I was in trouble,” he recalls. “I tried to calm myself down by taking a hot bath, but I must have passed out. And I experienced what some call a near-death experience; a golden light enveloped me in a warm glow. It was quite peaceful; in fact, I had the sense I was about to embark on a very compelling journey. But suddenly I was jolted out of the vision. The tub was overflowing and Sandra was standing above me. She’d heard the water running for too long, and when she came in, I wasn’t breathing. She pounded on my chest and literally brought me back to life. As I was rushed to the hospital, the only thought on my mind was something my ex-manager Jack Rollins told me about Lenny Bruce right after Lenny’s death from an overdose. All Jack said was: ‘the man sinned against his talent’. That hit home. I realised I was throwing it all away, and I became determined to clean up my act.”
Bennett pauses to reflect on the experience.
“I did experience that whole thing, that flash. And Sandra did save my life by belting me, waking me up,” he says. “But it’s not that I felt I went over to the other side. I was definitely there. That was a wake-up call in many ways, though I also really did have to just find myself at that point in my life.”
But what about music? Read Charlie Parker’s biography and you could start to believe that drugs intensified his music whereas, say, during the four years Miles Davis was a heroin addict, his music and life fell asunder.
“It is right what you say about Miles,” Bennett responds. “And Charlie Parker, despite what you say and that is said about him actually once said about himself: ‘imagine how good I could have played if I didn’t do heroin. I was just a young guy and they stuck a needle in my arm and I didn’t even know what was happening. But imagine how good it would have been if I knew what I was doing?’ And, as I write in the book, the only downside of working with Bill Evans was watching his addiction destroy him. I did once say to him, What happened? Why did you start doing drugs? Did someone hurt you? He said, ‘Hurt me? I wish they did. I wish somebody had broken my arm instead of sticking a needle into it for the first time. I wish somebody would have knocked me out so that I’d never touch it again’.”
Sadly, Evans, with whom Tony recorded what he and many jazz buffs regard as two of his best albums, subsequently died of an overdose.
“In the last few months he was so sick that after a set he’d have to go to his room and rest. He finally ran out of the energy to keep living. The last time I talked to Bill he called me and he sounded desperate and full of despair. He said, ‘I want to tell you one thing: just think truth and beauty. Forget about everything else. Just concentrate on truth and beauty, that’s all’. I’ve tried to live by those words ever since.”
In his book, Bennett claims that once he got his finances and career back in order he realised he didn’t need to get high again. But was Tony coked out on, say, his classic early 70s CBS albums such as Something?
He pauses before answering.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” he reflects, quietly. “We all do. So I can’t say that ‘because of that I did this’. We’re all amateurs, in every sense. I’m still learning. But as you get older you do begin to realise what is good for your art, and life, and what is not. I think I do know, by now. Though, at 72, I m still learning a lot about music.”
But coke didn’t make Tony Bennett a better singer or artist, did it?
“No, it did not.”
“No. The more wide awake you are, the better the art and the music. As both Charlie Parker and Bill Evans in those quotes seem, to me, to be saying. It’s just common sense. The more alert you are, the more you are yourself, the more logic and control you have. Overall, you re more relaxed because you know there is nothing naughty going on, so all the nervousness leaves you. All the anxiety.”
That said, Tony is, perhaps predictably, unimpressed when he learns that there is one particular Bennett Internet site currently claiming that now that the man has admitted he was into coke this, somehow, makes him twice as hip as he’d already become in recent years.
“That, to me, is just twisted logic. Somebody else trying to justify their own beliefs by slapping that stuff on me,” he says, almost angrily.
So let’s focus on our second taboo subject – Bennett ‘s connections to the mob.
On the lighter side, it now transpires that one of Tony Bennett’s original vocal coaches was a wise-guy called Tony Tamburello – Tony T to his buddies! Bennett was introduced to this character by his first manager Ray Muscerella and Tony T was so, well, connected and such a joker that he actually started a record label called MOB Records which featured a singer named ‘Al Dente’. And their discs were pressed at ’45 Caliber Speed’!
But what were Muscerella’s connections ?
“Vic Damone was managed by Ray,” Tony remembers. “He ran a few businesses in Brooklyn, his family owned a winery in Little Italy, he managed prizefighters and dabbled in showbusiness. In those days, there wasn’t a business or industry that wasn’t connected one way or another with the underworld and nightclubs were run by unsavoury characters. It was understood by everybody that if you wanted to play the big clubs, if you really wanted to make it, sooner or later you’d run into one of these guys. The underworld also ran the jukebox operations across the country and built Las Vegas. So, Ray became my manager.”
That, however, was a move that was not appreciated by one of Tony’s strongest supporters and friends at the time, Jack Wilson. In the book, Bennett writes:
“He pulled me aside. ‘You realise, don’t you’, he said ‘what we’re talking about here?’ He wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. But I felt that I couldn’t pass up on the chance to get the good gigs I was sure Ray could get me.
Jack was completely opposed to my getting involved with Ray. He said, ‘You’re making the wrong move. I told him I’d been scuffling long enough, living on ten cents a day all these years, and I just couldn’t turn down any kind of help. Ray was going to give me financial backing and I was sure he was going to make something happen. But Jack was adamant. He felt so strongly about it, he really let me have it; he took his best shot and slapped me hard across the face.
In conversation with Hot Press, Bennett elaborates on this point:
“That is how strongly Jack felt about that. But they did own all the nightclubs. That is a fact. And ruled the jukebox business and then started up record companies to make the records for those jukeboxes and signing up singers to make those records, so they controlled it all.
“Before we started this interview you mentioned the Roulette label in terms of that great Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong record, right? That label was completely underworld. Count Basie and a magnificent artist like Charlie Parker, never got a cent of royalties, despite their popularity. It’s always been that way. That’s the history of the record business. They always fix up the books and drive the artists crazy.”
But during our last chat on this subject, in ’95, Tony did say that, no matter what one’s connections with the underworld may originally have been, an artist can break away if s/he gets big enough. This, surely, is the opposite of what is said to be a defining feature of any form of involvement with the Mafia, that once the mob do you a favour, they own a slice of you for life.
“Well, I had to pay my dues,” says Tony. “In fact, I did walk away from the big nightclubs, like the Copacabana. Because I wanted to do my first concert, with Robert Farnon, in Carnegie Hall. And they threw a stink bomb right into the audience.”
But not a real bomb?
“No,” says Tony.
But he’s not smiling. It seems that, in this setting, a stink bomb is a mob warning for the fact that the next time it will be a real bomb a coded message well-known among New Yorkers such as those who might attend a concert in the Carnegie Hall.
But Bennett says he was still determined to break away.
“That night did it,” he says. “Because, once again, the public didn’t let me down. That stink bomb came just before the intermission, but they all came back in when they were told the place was clear, safe. Not one person left. And that was the public, as much as myself, taking a position against all that. That was when everything changed, for me.”
But that Carnegie Hall concert was in 1962. So does this mean that Tony Bennett had paid his dues to the underworld for, at least, the preceding fourteen years?
“Yeah,” he admits. “So at that point, I just said, ‘enough, I can’t pay any more dues than that. That’s it’. Yet what that taught me about the underworld was that – and this is one thing about them, if you’re honest, they leave you alone. It’s funny how that works. Okay, when I was young I was tired of trying, tired of taking one audition after another and I said, ‘this guy’s going to help me, I’m going to go with it’. And Jack was right to slap my face. But these guys are good guys, actually. They’re businessmen.
“But let’s face it, he continues, “who are they, compared to the ‘Masters Of War’ which is a great Bob Dylan song I’m going to record. You want to talk about murderers? These guys in the underworld are less than small fish compared to all that. In America there is an emphasis on the underworld only to make everybody forget what’s going on in Cambodia, the Serb situation, wherever? Do you see what I m saying?”
Tony Bennett would not be the first to put forward this particular premise the suggestion that such institutionalised diversionary tactics are used by the American government to detract attention from the underworld and straight-world affiliations that take place in the corridors of power. In America, back in the 20s, for example, Joe Kennedy built up his financial power base by selling bootleg liquor during prohibition and, later, turned to Sam Giancana to help get his son, JFK, elected.
“What you’ve just described, to me, is what that Dylan song is all about,” says Bennett. “And that is what I believe. The underworld are the infantry of the powers-that-be. They work, as you say, at times for the government, at other times for major corporate companies whenever, say, a strike has to be broken. That’s how it all works.”
So, are the underworld also the infantry in terms of the music industry?
“Everything,” he insists, sticking by the position he took four years ago. “And it’s not only record companies. It’s every business. It took me years to realise that fact. And you know how I did? In New York, there’s the Metropolitan Club right across the street from what used to be the Copacabana. It’s on 63rd Street, right off Fifth Avenue. And the Metropolitan Club is where all the billionaires are, right? So one day, walking up that street I realised that right across from where they were gathering together was, as I say, the Copacabana, where all their infantry was: the racketeers. So my point is that everyone keeps talking about the underworld owning and running the Copa but they don’t talk about the billionaires that are making all this happen, really running the real show, right? That’s reality.”
Tony Bennett laughs. Like a real wise-guy.
One could sum up Tony Bennett s rise in the music business over the past fifty years as one slow but inexorable move from mob-owned venues like the Copa to, well, the Metropolitan Club across the road. Having re-signed with Columbia in the United States, Tony Bennett certainly has the kind of controlling interest in his work that would make many a rock star weep.
“Probably!” he says, smiling just a little smugly. “But the real point is that because I have this kind of control I have won seven Grammies in five years. So this approach obviously works. In other words, at last I am allowed to be myself, musically, with no-one else telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, what I can or can’t record.”
Does this mean that from personally selecting a project through the choosing and recording of the songs right up the album cover design and artwork (Bennett’s own portrait of Billie Holiday features on his Holiday tribute album) Tony Bennett has total control?
“Everything,” he stresses. “And, also, I don’t work on royalties. I have my own company and Columbia just distribute me. So it s a 50/50 deal. It has turned me into a multi, multi-millionaire.”
Tony Bennett also is quick to point out that, unlike those early days back with Clive Davis, Columbia/CBS now “works with me on every project, they have a great team behind me all the way.”
“That is how it happens and our next project is a double CD of Duke Ellington’s music,” he says. “And this is where my music has finally become what painting has been to me all these years. As in, art made-by-hand. By my own hands, from the start to the finish. And it is a great feeling to be able to just say, this is what I want to do in terms of someone like Duke.
“I also think kids will love the swing album in particular because Louis Jordan, Louis Prima are all back in vogue in the States, right now. And you have that guy, Brian Setzer and his Big Band touring with Bob Dylan, which, to me, is totally right. In fact, I did Radio City in New York just recently and we did all that Duke Ellington Jump For Joy stuff kids were jiving and jitterbugging up and down the aisles.”
That brings Tony Bennett full circle, back to where he started in the late 40s. Even before he signed up with Ray Muscerella!
“It does, yeah,” he says, laughing. “Even if it took me up to forty-five years! Maybe Donald O’Connor was wrong, after all! Maybe what he meant to say was it takes not five but fifty years before your work is fully appreciated!”