Tony Bennett was hosting a 50th birthday party for himself out in Beverly Hills, deep in the palm trees, and skipping from conversation to conversation. He happened to spot Cary Grant in the crowd and strolled over to tell Grant about his interest in doing some movie work, or maybe sitcoms.

Grant shook his head no-no-no-no.

"Cary Grant said: 'Don't do films. It's boring,' " Bennett recalls. " 'You sit around all day long waiting to film a scene. Keep doing what you're doing: Go around the world. Be in front of live audiences.' "

And that's exactly what Bennett has been doing. Going around the world. Crooning and smiling, a 50-year balladeer, achieving that rare feat of square-shouldering himself into one decade -- the '50s -- then another, the '60s, then into another, the '90s.

The great Lena Horne once went on the road with him. Sinatra used to brag on him. He was the first white singer to record with Count Basie's band.

From the beginning, the hits stacked up like dominoes -- "Because of You" in 1951, "Rags to Riches" in 1953, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" in 1962, "The Good Life" in 1963. There have been Grammys aplenty.

The life, of course, has not been without slides, dark moments. Some years he seemed to vanish. Some years he seemed to be looking for the right music. There were two divorces and problems with drugs. But endurance matters. And there came wonderful second and third acts in the life of Tony Bennett. Reissues of old albums and the recording of new ones.

The midnight crooner is 79 now and on his way to Washington to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. A "singer's singer," proclaims the center.

A lot of decades and crazes and fads lie behind Bennett. But the songs are still being sung.

He's always been hard to categorize. One of his early hits was a pop version of Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart." Some mention him in the same breath with Sinatra and Mel Torme. If so, he's Sinatra without the angst, without the vulgarity. He'll sign autographs till his hands are sore. He walks Manhattan streets alone. As if he realizes how magically sweet it is for the public to see a legend by himself, without bodyguard or entourage.

So, a life that started in Queens has come to the Kennedy Center. "Imagine that," Bennett says, his voice a velvety hoarseness, as if it's coming from behind a pair of curtains. "What a great country it is."

Hard Times, Bright Dreams

Bennett is sitting in his apartment overlooking Central Park South. He's wearing a dark green suit, white shirt and lime green tie. A red pocket square is puffed just so from the suit jacket. It might as well be 1947. He might as well be crossing a bar to jawbone with Art Tatum or Nat King Cole or Philly Jo Jones.

He was born in New York in 1926. His parents came from Italy through Ellis Island. Bennett's got a copy of the arrival log in a scrapbook. They eventually settled into a house in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens.

There was little money. There were a lot of dreams. Early on, Bennett knew what he wanted to do: take to a stage and sing. "It's like the great singer Joe Williams said, 'It's not that you want to sing, it's that you have to sing.' "

Maybe some of that urge to sing, to talk in lyrics, came out of loneliness. Of certain aches that wouldn't go away.

When Bennett was 10, his father died of pneumonia. His mother sent him to Upstate New York, near Watertown, to live with an uncle. A little boy, all alone. The snow piled high and mom wasn't there. "It was hard. Yes. Sure. Of course."

He says it all in barely a whisper.

He says it with his eyes glistening.

Two years, and then he was back home. The family still scuffled when it came to money. Once an uncle who owned the place where Bennett and his family were staying threatened his mother about late rent. Enraged, Tony stomped out of his room and threatened to throw the man out the window. "I picked him up off the ground," Bennett recalls.

As a teenager, Bennett found a job as a singing waiter at a club in Astoria called the Pheasant. A heaping serving of lasagna and some lyrics falling from the throat. "They had a little jazz band," he says of the club. "I'd take requests. And if I didn't know a song, I'd run into the kitchen and ask these two Irish waiters, and they would tell me the words to the songs."

He was making $15 a week.

Sometimes -- alone, a teenager -- he'd slip into the nightclubs after they had closed. Because that's when some real joy and magic would begin. Impromptu jam sessions. "They let me in," he says, still awed at the memory. "They heard I was a student. After 3 in the morning they'd close the clubs and they'd have these jazz sessions. It would last all night long. It was magnificent."

In the beginning, he'd just watch and listen. Bopping along.

Then, one night, something happened at a nightclub in Queens. Tyree Glenn, who was a part of Louis Armstrong's band, was playing. Glenn had spotted Bennett before.

"Tyree Glenn brought me up onstage," Bennett says. "It was one of those quiet nights. He said, 'Come on up, sing a song.' "

Broke and struggling, he felt rich that very moment.

After serving in the Army in World War II, mainly in France and Germany, he came home to study theater and painting in Manhattan on the GI Bill. He saved dollar bills and found himself a music teacher named Mimi Speer.

Her studio was on 52nd Street. He could see the marquees with the famous names. "You'd look around and see Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Philly Jo Jones. They were all on this magnificent street."

"It was tough at first," Bennett says. "Many years I lived on my mama's carfare to get into New York. Then I got lucky."

Pearl Bailey had a little revue playing down in Greenwich Village in 1950 and she recruited Bennett to join the all-black cast. "She gave me my big break," he says.

This is why boys and girls daydream while staring out windows, read the fan magazines, hang around in dark nightclubs hoping someone will toss a kind word their way: Bob Hope saw Bennett in Bailey's show and was knocked out. Hope snatched the kid and took him downtown to join his own show at the Paramount.

Bennett wowed the bobby-soxers at the Paramount. Hope saw a future for the kid, but not with the stage name he was using at the time -- Joe Bari -- or his birth name, Anthony Benedetto. "It's too long for the marquee," Bennett recalls Hope saying.

They came up with Tony Bennett. And Bob Hope took Tony Bennett on the road.

Bennett was delirious, joyful, grateful. He was traveling the country with a master comedian. It was dreamy, but it was also blurry. Bennett hasn't forgotten that he often did seven shows a day. "It was inhuman," he says. "I still feel the numbness of doing seven shows a day. Ten-thirty a.m. to 10:30 at night. I didn't sleep, I fainted."

Finding His Way

How does a singer find a voice, a style, something original?

Sinatra's style was like water -- it was just there. "Sinatra was my hero," says Bennett. "And Louis Armstrong I loved very much. He taught everybody. He was the source of jazz. He really created swing. He created scat singing."

As for Bennett's style, it is a mixture of husky and velvet, a singsong that is nearly conversational.

Bennett was first signed by Mitch Miller at Columbia Records. "He got me and Rosemary Clooney," Bennett says of Miller, who put them on the radio. "We were the first 'American Idols.' It was a show called 'Songs for Sale.' "

Every singer, Bennett believes, starts off struggling to figure out how to leap from the shadows of more notable singers. The late '40s and early '50s were no different for Bennett. "You had to find out who you were," he says. "Don't forget Ray Charles had made a whole album that was a complete imitation of Nat King Cole. Sinatra sounded like Crosby."

In time, Bennett soured on the Mitch Miller-Columbia collaboration. "They had me doing silly songs. I wanted to sing Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington. Miller said, 'Every time you get a hit record, you want to sing jazz.' "

He couldn't be Sinatra, or Torme, or Vic Damone, or Cole. Anthony Benedetto became Tony Bennett, who became the jazz singer that was deep within himself.

His 1955 album, "Cloud Seven," garnered critical attention. The 1957 album, "Beat of My Heart," featured Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton and Philly Jo Jones. Then came the potent 1958 album with Count Basie -- "Basie Swings, Bennett Sings."

"He had a quality, a gentle quality," says Peggy King, herself a Columbia Records singer, who appeared on the 1956 summer replacement TV series called "The Tony Bennett Show." She goes on: "He came along at a time when singers -- Frankie Laine -- were yelling. Tony was a throwback to Frank Sinatra and that group."

King, however, was mystified about Bennett's pedigree. "He never was a Broadway star, and he never did movies. Just suddenly, there he was, at Columbia."

Before starting that replacement gig (for Perry Como), Bennett got a bad case of nerves about being on television. "I'm talking nervous to the point of filling the tub up with ice cubes." He needed to talk to someone.

So he went to Frank.

When he wanted to be, there could be no one more generous than Francis Albert Sinatra: Sending a plane to fetch you; paying a huge hospital bill.

Sinatra sat Bennett down. "He said, 'What is it, son?' " recalls Bennett, who told him about the nervousness, the sweats. "And he said: 'The audience will sympathize with you. They will support you.' And I believed exactly what he was saying."

A Shift in Style

Then music styles changed. Public desires shifted. Frank was Frank -- a legend who could swat away the vagaries of the public. But a Tony Bennett found himself adrift.

"When I saw music changing -- Janis Joplin and all that -- it just got lewd," Bennett says. Entertainers were taking drugs. "I couldn't take it. I left."

It was the early 1970s, and he lived awhile in London. An accomplished painter, he painted more. (He continues to paint daily. His oils and watercolors can fetch between $10,000 and $80,000.) The Europeans loved him onstage.

Then things got quieter. And the years started rolling by. "His career seemed to fall apart," says King.

He became addicted to cocaine. There were two divorces. (He had two boys with his first wife, Patricia Beech, and two daughters with his second, Sandra Grant.) "Family is it. You sit down at the table for supper . . ."

The velvety voice trails off.

It was Bennett's son, Danny, who plotted a comeback for his father. Danny got his father introduced to the MTV crowd. He paired him with younger musicians -- the Red Hot Chili Peppers, k.d. lang. He put him back out on the road. Bennett -- poof! -- was no longer a nostalgia act, something on the newsreels. He was a hepcat. Cool. Like Nat King Cole had been, like Sinatra had been.

And by the early 1990s, Bennett had returned to his own style of jazz-influenced crooning.

There would be appearances on "MTV Unplugged," on "The Simpsons." There were more albums -- salutes to Duke Ellington and Fred Astaire. He played himself in movies -- "Bruce Almighty," "Analyze This." Now Clint Eastwood (a 2000 Kennedy Center honoree) is planning a documentary on the singer's career.

He's leading a visitor toward the door, but first Bennett wants to show off the study where he paints. It's sunlit and filled with pictures. There's a poster on the wall of a 1948 Billie Holiday concert. "She was appearing at some sawdust joint in Philadelphia," Bennett says. "Cost two dollars to see her. I went and stood in the back. Then she came to the bar. I was standing there, behind her, just looking. Didn't anybody know me. She must have felt me looking. Because she turned around and said, 'Hey you, go get me a gin.' "

The onetime singing waiter did as ordered. It gave him chills.

"Imagine that," Tony Bennett says. "Going to get a drink for Billie Holiday."

Tony Bennett at his Manhattan apartment. In his 50-year career, the singer has fit his style to performers as disparate as Count Basie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Bennett performing in Hot Springs, Ark., in 2003 and, above left, in a promotional shot for his 1956 summer TV series. Bennett has seen it all in his career. The man who toured with Bob Hope in the '50s was raking in Grammys during the '90s. He won another in 2004.