In his new book, Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett, the 86-year-old crooner writes
of a happy, healthy life built on inspiration, simplicity and positive thinking.
By Allan Richter
Popular music is littered with stars who burned out in the same flame that shot them to fame. Not Tony Bennett. The 17-time Grammy winner has enjoyed a career that has spanned 60 years.
Bennett has found new audiences even as he has stayed true to the styles of the great jazz and pop standards on which he launched his musical life. He still tours—this year has so far seen the 86-year-old Bennett play concerts, with the hallmark sparkle in his eye and smile, from Boston to the White House to Florida.
Bennett’s 1980s ascent to stardom among the MTV generation was in part due to the management savvy of his son, Danny Bennett. But there is something else more elemental, a childlike awe within the singer that is at work in Bennett’s many musical collaborations with his younger counterparts, including k.d. lang, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bono and Lady Gaga, with whom he is working on an album of jazz duets.
Just as younger musicians see Bennett as an influential elder statesman, the crooner points to what he has learned from other artists. And because he rails against boundaries, every creative stream is ripe for providing some lesson.
“If you study the masters—Picasso, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire—right up to the day they died, they were performing,” Bennett told The New York Times in a 1999 interview. “If you are creative, you get busier as you get older.”
Nuggets of wisdom like that form the core of Bennett’s new Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett (Harper). Ostensibly a memoir, the book’s deeper purpose is to provide advice on maintaining emotional well-being and how positive thinking has contributed to the singer’s longevity and happiness.
The spiritual reference in the subtitle hints at the tone of Bennett’s book, and the foreword by Tuesdays with Morrie author Mitch Albom confirms its feel-good, uplifting timbre. “Tony persevered and thrived, thanks mostly to his devotion to music,” Albom writes. “It has been his cape and his swaddling cloth, a gift to him and a gift to us.”
Celebrity memoirs too often read like an extended gossip tabloid filled with sometimes-salacious references to famous personalities with whom the author has rubbed shoulders. For someone of Bennett’s longevity, there are naturally plenty of boldface names to go around. But Bennett’s name-dropping never drifts to gossip. Instead, the dignified Life Is a Gift author treats his famous friends and colleagues as valuable teachers for whom he holds some reverence.
“When you choose your friends, realize that you are also choosing your teachers” and “Good friends bring out the best qualities in one another,” Bennett writes in one of the clusters of aphorisms that close each chapter.
Those particular sayings about friendship appear at the end of an early chapter in which Bennett writes about his work and friendships with Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland and Count Basie. Bennett learned the importance of a sense of humor from Garland, recounting a practical joke she once played: sending a wrapped chicken leg as a gift for the singer Peggy Lee. More important, the legendary Garland taught Bennett to load his set lists with the best songs, but to also leave some room for crowd-pleasers that make the audience smile.
Bennett’s first teachers, of course, were his parents. From his father he appears to have learned that the power of a positive attitude can go a long way to defeat physical illness, or at least keep it in check.
Bennett says his father’s giving spirit was never diminished by a weak heart brought on by rheumatic fever as a child. “Despite his illness, my father was giving,” Bennett writes. “He was the person who first inspired my love of music. He had a fantastic voice and got tremendous pleasure from singing to anyone who would listen.” Growing up in Italy, Bennett’s father sang on a mountaintop to villagers below. As an adult, Bennett recreated the scene when he visited his ancestral home.
Bennett is accomplished with sketch pencils and paintbrushes, and he signs his work with his given name, Anthony Benedetto. The inspiration that Bennett finds in nature and simplicity, taking shape in both his music and paintings, are recurring themes in Life Is a Gift.
Bennett writes how he learned to edit himself in part from Fred Astaire, who told the singer early on how he would assemble a show with the best material he could find, then trim 15 minutes from it to tighten it up. In painting, Bennett observes, the artist John Singer Sargent used only six colors in his works. In contrast, today’s stages are cluttered with lights, fireworks and dancers, which Bennett eschews for beautiful concert halls with top-notch acoustics. Know what to leave in, Bennett says, and what to take out.
That pursuit of an uncluttered life served Bennett well when he pared away the excesses of his brief lapse into drugs. Bennett once hired Lenny Bruce’s former manager, who told the singer that the groundbreaking comedian “sinned against his talent,” Bennett recounted in a 2011 interview with AARP.
“I went back and I really meditated on that sentence: ‘He sinned against his talent.’ I stopped everything,” Bennett says of the drugs. “By stopping, my whole career changed for the better. The fact that I stopped proved to me that if you’re just normal, you’re so much healthier. You have longevity that way. You just never give up on yourself and you believe in yourself and you work hard to get better as you go along.”
Bennett’s continued pursuit of simplicity may be why his instrument of choice is the most natural of all—his voice.
“Singing provides the ability to dig deep into my own psyche,” Bennett writes. “The human voice is more flexible than any other instrument in existence. It can express various nuances in tone, volume and inflections that are beyond compare. It gives me the ability to tap right into the innermost feelings deep in my soul and communicate them in ways that are not possible otherwise. It keeps me in touch with my own true nature, which in fact is a reflection of the nature that surrounds us all.”
Among the lessons Bennett says he learned from his creative pursuits is an appreciation of the human body, even if it’s a little out of shape. He recently took up sculpting, putting the human form in focus and perspective.
“Studying anatomy makes you realize what a monument the human body is,” Bennett writes. “So many people are unhappy with themselves physically, but when you realize what you’re walking around with anatomically, and that everyone has a different physique that makes them an individual, you learn to appreciate yours a lot more.”
Bennett observes that his given surname, Benedetto, in Italian means “the blessed one.” In Life Is a Gift, he shows that you can make many of your own blessings, too.