Tony Bennett did not leave his art in San Francisco. In fact, he takes it with him wherever he goes. "I've been doing cityscapes from around the country since 1964," Bennett says proudly. "I've been doing a traveling book, with many, many sketches of San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington. I have some beauties on Washington--people, places and things--and someday I'm going to put it into book form and have a coffee table book."
Bennett, the consummate entertainer (he performs at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday), is not exactly an amateur in the art world. He's had exhibitions all over the world, though the name Tony Bennett never crops up: He signs all his work Benedetto (he was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto). "By doing that, I have two careers. One is Benedetto the painter and one is Tony Bennett the entertainer. I like both of them; it makes my life interesting."
Bennett, born and bred in New York, started doing street murals in junior high and says art "has always been a great part of my life." It also provides instant relief from the rigors of constant touring. "That's the best part of it. You paint for two hours and it feels like two minutes. It really passes the time and it doesn't make your life boring on the road."
Two careers seem to be enough for Bennett these days. He's tried his hand at owning his own record company, Improv; the label had a terrific roster (Bennett, Bill Evans, Earl Hines, Ruby Braff, Charlie Byrd, Marian McPartland), but it lacked solid distribution and is now defunct. Recently, he's been signed to veteran producer John Hammond's new label. Both spent decades at Columbia together (Bennett did 96 albums there) without ever working together. "But he understands my background and we've really hit it off."
Over the years, Bennett has made few commercial concessions, sticking to what he calls "silver lining music," the cream of American popular song. "I like to keep it that way," he says. "The recordings I've made have lasted through the years and it seems to be a successful formula."
Having given a single shot at acting (his performance as a press agent in "The Oscar" didn't win him an Oscar, but did garner a Golden Turkey nomination as worst-ever film performance by a singer), Bennett simply says he likes to sing. "That's what I do."
And paint, of course. Unless it's a choice. "I performed with Count Basie at President Reagan's inauguration. We played in the hall at the Kennedy Center. I just love playing there. Anyways, they were expecting a thousand people and 15,000 showed up; it was packed. It's the only time I remember when people didn't complain about having their toes stepped on. Leroy Neiman did a painting of it." Tony Bennett was too busy to paint this one himself.