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Tony Bennett Retires From Performing: Listen Back To His 'Fresh Air' Interviews

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Tony Bennett, the singer Frank Sinatra called the best in the business, is retiring from performing at the age of 95, after eight decades on stage and in clubs. Earlier this year, it was announced he had Alzheimer's disease, diagnosed five years earlier, but he'd continue to perform. His last performance was just two weeks ago with Lady Gaga in sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall.

We're going to listen back to excerpts of three of Terry's interviews with Tony Bennett. He's one of our foremost interpreters of the Great American Songbook. In the 1950s, he had a string of hits that included "Because Of You" and "Rags To Riches." In the 1960s, his hits included "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," "I Wanna Be Around" and "Who Can I Turn To?" He made two legendary duet albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans in the 1970s, and beginning in the 1990s, through his "MTV Unplugged" performances and duet albums with k.d. lang, Amy Winehouse, John Mayer, Bono, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and others, he introduced himself to new generations of audiences. Often during concert performances, he'd demonstrate the power of his voice by putting away the microphone and singing out to the farthest reaches of the hall.

Let's begin by listening to Terry's 1982 interview with Tony Bennett. She started with this recording, featuring him with the Count Basie Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICAGO")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town. Chicago, Chicago, I'll show you around. Bet your bottom dollar you'll lose the blues in Chicago. Chicago, the town that Marty Faye could not shut down. On State Street, that great street, I just want to say, they do things that they don't do on Broadway. Say, they have the time, the time of their life. I saw a man. He danced with his wife in Chicago, hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Mid-1950s Tony Bennett with the Count Basie Orchestra. Can I ask you what attracted you to this song?

BENNETT: It was Philadelphia.

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: Actually, yeah, it was at the David Dushoff's, you know, Latin Casino. And that's the first time Basie and I had ever gotten together. I think it's the first time a singer ever got together with Basie. And we covered all kind of tunes. And this is a very special album because it was unforgettable. We recorded it at starting at 12 o'clock at night, and we finished at 8 in the morning. We did the whole album in one night.

GROSS: Is there any etiquette among singers about who records what tune, and - like, could anyone record "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" after you recorded it? How many years did it take until someone was able to make a recording of that?

BENNETT: Well, see in the early '50s, when I recorded, there was still a semblance of ethics, you know, because if Nat Cole had a recording, you just left it alone. You found your own. And it was quite a challenge 'cause he'd come up with some pretty good records.

GROSS: If one looks to see what other people are recording and there's certain songs you don't touch, the only person I think now who would be in the same league with you would be Sinatra. Would you be paying attention to what other people were recording and seeing what was theirs?

BENNETT: Well, hey; you know, if someone comes up with a nice song, and you feel you could do - to me, there is a game, and the game is to make it your own number somehow...

GROSS: Yeah.

BENNETT: ...Even if you have to change the tempo a little. If someone - if Sinatra's doing a tune that's a ballad, but you like it very much, you could swing it, or if there's a swing tune that you could turn into a ballad. It's so that it becomes your interpretation, your way of doing it. So there's a little originality. I'm very interested in people that are individuals, rather than all doing the same thing.

GROSS: What makes a song right for you to sing? I mean, you have a wonderful repertoire, and your interpretation of certain songs have really made me hear them in a way I haven't before. How do you know that a song is one that you want to sing? What do you look for?

BENNETT: Well, something I've experienced - sometimes I just migrate over to, like, what's autobiographical? Unconsciously, I'll just find something, and I say, my God, I've experienced that. I've lived that. It's happened to me. And it could be humorous. It could be, you know, dramatic. It could be smooth and cool. You never know which way it's going to come from, but what I really look for is a kind of craftsmanship in a song, someone who's really musically knowledgeable and combines it with great words, so that it meshes. And I like to concentrate on interpretation, on interpreting songs.

GROSS: I'd like to play a selection from the first album you recorded with Bill Evans, "We'll Be Together Again." That's what we're going to hear. How did this album come to be?

BENNETT: Well, the great jazz singer Annie Ross is a dear friend of mine, and she suggested it. She was the one who said do an album with Bill Evans. And Bill and I met one another in London at Ronnie Scott's club, and we just started talking about it, thinking about it. It was a very happy experience because he told me to keep - you know, all popular artists have a lot of cronies around them, and he said keep all the cronies home, he said, and just let's you and I go up to San Francisco and for three or four days just record an album.

And it was such a terrific experience because he's the kind of guy - just my own ears kind of gravitate toward Maurice Ravel or Bill Evans, and I could listen to them all day without feeling like I was overfed or anything, like, that I'd want to change it. I could put his music on, just his piano-playing, and listen to it all day, and I'd find it very peaceful and very good for solitude and thinking of creative ideas. I hear Bill Evans, and I just - my mind just triggers off into a creative process. I like it very much.

GROSS: Did you have to talk about each other's music much before you started to actually play together? Were there any things that you really had to work out?

BENNETT: Well, we had an admiration society going. He liked the way I sang. I love the way he played. And then we - the only kind of conversations we had about that were just what songs we both agreed that we liked very much. And then he would work for two or three hours in the studio on the production of the number, and we'd sketch it out. Let's do - let's start here. Let's do this surprise. Let's blend over here.

And then after two or three hours, when we felt we had a kind of a production on a number, we said, let's try one. And we'd do that for three days. We did that for three days on both albums. And it was a wonderful thing because it was just the engineer and his manager, Helen Keane, who was the producer, and Bill, and that was the - it was nice and intimate, very relaxed, and a joy to do.

GROSS: I love the song that we're about to hear, "We'll Be Together Again." Can I ask you why you chose to include this one?

BENNETT: Well, one of the nicest guys I ever met in the music business was Carl Fischer, who was an accompanist for Frankie Laine. He was American Indian and a wonderful person who met me before I was popular, just encouraged me to keep singing. And he wrote "You've Changed," another great standard. He's a very, very talented, talented man. And that's the reason that I like the song that much, plus the fact that Billie Holiday made it in an album called "Lady In Satin." And I'm very influenced by Billie Holiday.

GROSS: Well, let's hear this recording of "We'll Be Together Again" with my guest Tony Bennett singing, accompanied by pianist Bill Evans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'LL BE TOGETHER AGAIN")

BENNETT: (Singing) No tears, no fears. Remember; there's always tomorrow. So what if we have to part? We'll be together again. Your kiss, your smile are memories I'll treasure forever. Try thinking with your heart. We'll be together again. Times when I know you'll be lonesome, times when I know you'll be sad - don't let temptation surround you. Don't let the blues make you bad. Some day, some way, we both have a lifetime before us. Parting is not goodbye. We'll be together again.

GROSS: Tony Bennett with Bill Evans. Can I ask you something?

BENNETT: Sure.

GROSS: Do you like your voice?

BENNETT: Yes.

GROSS: Good (laughter).

BENNETT: But I happen to like myself. But I'm not in love with myself. I like my - no, I'm - you know, but...

GROSS: I know it sounds foolish to ask you if you like your voice. But I just know so many musicians who really can't listen back to their stuff. And they might like what they do in the abstract, but...

BENNETT: Now, Bill was, like, amazing. Bill always felt like he was never getting it. I mean, it was very frustrating for me - all this magnificent music. First of all, he was very careful about his pianos. If a piano just didn't have the right touch, he was just really bugged all day long. When he was playing, he felt nothing was happening. And he'd get very annoyed with the piano. But if it was a good piano, he would like it. But then a lot of times, he felt that he wasn't getting it. And I know that - I understand that feeling. And that's happened to me a lot of times I've recorded. And I think the trouble is that - what happens is sometimes you work too hard.

GROSS: Do you find that you do a different kind of performance in a more showbiz setting than you would, say, in a jazz club? And do the audiences respond to different kinds of material in those different settings?

BENNETT: I like to experiment. So therefore I like being flexible. I like studying flexibility. I like going from a piano player as wonderful as Bill Evans up to a philharmonic orchestra. I did a television special this season with Buddy Rich on the BBC that'll be played in America, and you'll see it's primarily drums and voice. I don't like being predictable. And I'd like to do different things - and things - I was the first one to sing without a microphone in clubs, you know - and a lot of times. So I'll try things. And if they work, I leave them in.

GROSS: When you're using a microphone, which hand do you hold it in?

BENNETT: Left hand.

GROSS: How come?

BENNETT: I don't know. I guess I - you know, my Italian heritage. My right hand goes automatically into - explain myself (laughter).

GROSS: So is that why you think your right hand moves?

BENNETT: (Laughter) I think so.

(LAUGHTER)

BENNETT: Hey. (Speaking Italian).

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Tony Bennett speaking with Terry Gross in 1982. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY BENNETT AND BILL EVANS SONG, "THE TOUCH OF YOUR LIPS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Last week it was announced that Tony Bennett is retiring from performing, following doctor's orders. We're listening to Terry's 1982 interview with him.

GROSS: Did you know that "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" would be the overwhelming smash success that it was?

BENNETT: I had no idea about that one because I really thought that was a local hit, that in San Francisco the people loved their magnificent city. And I thought it would just be local in that area, having no idea it would ever break into an international song.

GROSS: What goes through your mind when you sing it now?

BENNETT: I happen to like it very much. It's a - you know, I had a great idol when I was younger and even now. It was Maurice Chevalier - the way he performed, his gregariousness. There's his spirit. His energy at his old age was something to behold. And he had a handle called Paris. And everything he sang about was Paris.

And to me, you know, it's - San Francisco is America's Paris. So it's a wonderful song for people to dream by. A lot of times, they said it doesn't necessarily mean San Francisco to them - just something, some dream that they'd like to have happen. And it happens to have a nice musical structure to it. And I like the song. So I don't mind doing it. I have to do it wherever I play.

And a lot of people - a lot of creative people say, don't you get tired of singing that? And I retort by saying to them, don't you - do you ever get tired of making love? So it's like that. I happen to love the fact that it's made me this popular. It's allowed me to be as creative as I want in any endeavor of - musical endeavor. So it's given me a great license to be established in an institution in the country. And I'm very grateful for that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO")

BENNETT: (Singing) The loveliness of Paris seems, somehow, sadly gray. The glory that was Rome is of another day. I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan. I'm going home to my city by the Bay. I left my heart in San Francisco, high on a hill. It calls to me - to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars. The morning fog may chill the air, I don't care. My love waits there.

DAVIES: Tony Bennett. He returned to FRESH AIR in 1991. He told Terry about growing up in Astoria, Queens, and about his brother, who was a musical prodigy.

BENNETT: He was a very wonderful opera singer. They called him the little Caruso. He was 13 and sang solo spots in the Metropolitan Opera and did radio shows. In those days, that was the highest ratings. The shows were big. And he was always a guest artist on very big radio shows. And we all loved opera in my home.

GROSS: So if your brother was the little Caruso, what were you?

BENNETT: Well, I was the comedian because I had to compete somehow for all that attention. And I imitated Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. And I did imitations of them. And it used to break my relatives up. Every Sunday, they'd get - make a circle around my sister, my brother and myself. And we would entertain them. And we couldn't wait for that Sunday. There was so much fun. And so much love was given to us and encouragement.

GROSS: Now, your father died when you were 9. How did your mother earn the money to bring up the children?

BENNETT: Well, she was an amazing lady because she was a seamstress. And she worked so hard and raised three children. My older sister helped her so much and raised two boys. And we just were very close and - well, it was just the most beautiful home life that you could ever dream of. And it was different. It was sad not to have a father and very confusing. But it's funny - it just shows you when people love one another how much - how many things really work out.

GROSS: How old were you when you had to go out and work for a living?

BENNETT: I was about 15 when I first started. I started out as a singing waiter.

GROSS: So you had to sing in between serving or sing while you were serving?

BENNETT: Well, yeah, both (laughter). It was fun. It was almost Chaplinesque (ph), you know, because I had two Irish waiters. And they were great, jolly-type guys and always wanted to encourage me. And they'd - I'd get a request to sing "I'll Get By" or a song like that. And I'd run into the kitchen to get - I know if I sang it, I'd get an extra tip. So they'd teach it to me just right on the spot. And I'd come out singing it. And I used to love doing that, you know? It was just so much fun every weekend when I sang there.

GROSS: Were you still thinking of yourself as the clown when you were performing then?

BENNETT: No, I just enjoyed it. I've found out that I've been very fortunate even before I was known to - internationally. I always had luck with audiences. Somehow or other, I always had a gift of communicating. And I've got very nice reaction and encouragement from the audience. So it was always, you know, a positive thing for me to carry on. And I had all kinds of jobs, though. I really wasn't any good at anything except - I used to have just this craving that I had to become a singer.

GROSS: Were there any singers in your family, professional singers?

BENNETT: Well, my brother was very famous as a young boy. Then he - his - he kind of got psyched out by the relatives saying his voice changed at that age, 15 or 16, and got discouraged about it, unfortunately. But my father, I was told, was a magnificent singer in Italy, that he used to stand on - his town in Calabria was in a valley. And he used to sing at the top of the mountain. And the whole town would hear him. And they loved the way he sang, the legend goes.

DAVIES: Tony Bennett speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. At the age of 95, he's retiring from performances following doctors' orders. We'll hear more of his interview with Terry after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "WHO CAN I TURN TO?")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to excerpts of our interviews with singer Tony Bennett. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, though he had continued to perform. But last week it was announced he's retiring from performing following doctor's orders. He's 95. Let's get back to Terry's 1991 interview with Tony Bennett. He'd been telling her about growing up in Astoria, Queens. His father died when he was 9 years old.

GROSS: You had an uncle, I think, who was in vaudeville. Did your uncle's stories make you want to go into show business? Did it seem like fun to you?

BENNETT: Well, you know, he was a wise - a very wise psychologist as far as I'm concerned because his name was Dick Gordon and - Dick Surace, but his stage name was Dick Gordon. And he was really my father, and I didn't know it. I mean, he would just say, after supper, why don't you come and meet me under the lamppost on the street corner? And he would just hang out and talk to me and tell me these legends. And what an influence he was because he kind of gave me all the rules and what kind of person I should be if I go into show business.

And, you know, he warned me that - he said, I don't think you're ever going to make it because you have a rasp in your voice, he said. And if you're a singer, you're not going to make it if you sing. And so it - I don't know. It just gave me a fine tuning as to what attitude I should have when I perform and how careful I really have to be about everything.

GROSS: Well, how did telling you you had a rasp in your voice and therefore you'd never make it as a singer help you?

BENNETT: Well, John Barrymore once said the harder the slap, the greater the artist.

GROSS: Were you self-conscious about this thing that your father - your uncle had pointed out to you? Did you feel...

BENNETT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I taught how to - Louis Bellson, the great drummer, you know, Pearl Bailey's husband, the late Pearl Bailey - you know, he kind of taught me how to breathe and - so that when I sing, the rasp is not heard at all. And it's just a matter of breathing before you take - before a phrase that you sing; you see.

GROSS: You were in the military in World War II.

BENNETT: I was in the infantry, yes.

GROSS: Did you sing with a band during that?

BENNETT: After the war. I joined - there was a fantastic story, you know, about a Major Ledkoff (ph) who kind of saved me because a racial prejudice situation jumped off. And it was terrible in my life, and it just changed my life, you know, completely. And I went to school with a gentleman called Frank Smith, and he was a wonderful friend, Black musician. And he and I used to have so much fun together in New York City. And we had a vocal group at the High School of Industrial Art, where I was studying art. And when - I was allowed one guest for Thanksgiving in - at the Truman Hotel in Mannheim, Germany, after the war was over. And I went to his Baptist church and went to mass with him, and we had a pleasant time. And I said, you're allowed to be my guest. Come and have Thanksgiving dinner with me.

Well, there was a certain bigot who was a lieutenant. And he - when I came up out of the restaurant, we were having fun. He came up, called me Benedetto. He said, come over here. And he took a razor blade and slashed my corporal things off my arm and spit on it and threw it on the floor and sent me to graves registration where you dig up bodies. And it was horrible. And Major Ledkoff saved me. He heard about the incident and took me away from there right away and made me librarian for a wonderful orchestra that was conducted by Lin Arison, the warrant officer, and made me the librarian and singer for this beautiful American Forces Network orchestra.

GROSS: So as punishment, you were supposed to find the wounded and the dead and bury the dead.

BENNETT: Yes.

GROSS: How long did you have to do that?

BENNETT: For two and a half weeks. It was horrible. You know, it's just a horrible thing in my life, and I've never gotten over it. And man's inhumanity, man, is very important to me personally.

GROSS: How do you think you were changed by that experience?

BENNETT: Well, it definitely made me anti-war.

GROSS: You are really among the most respected singers today and certainly of your generation. And, I mean, among the things you're respected for is not only the beauty of your voice and the depth of your phrasing but also your repertoire, your choice of songs, your understanding of what makes a song good. In the '50s and '60s up until around 1965, you had so many records on the charts. You know, you were recording about three albums a year, and a lot of the singles were big hits on the charts. Your last chart hit was in 1965, "If I Ruled The World." And after that, rock 'n' roll really took off, you know, monopolized the charts pretty much. What were those years in the latter part of the '60s like for you? Were you trying very hard to land something else on the charts?

BENNETT: No.

GROSS: Or had you pretty much given up on that?

BENNETT: No, I kind of walked away from it. I thought it was - I saw it as a fiasco. It became more and more Madison Avenue programming, you know, just a marketing thing. I've got this wonderful craving. You know, a friend of mine, John Bradshaw, he's a dancer. And he said to me, God, you paint every day. He said, why don't you stretch out and make it an occupation? So about 35 years ago, I just took him up on that. And I started painting and going toward selling my paintings and all that and having gallery showings.

And then that allowed me to become a performer because I always had deadlines up until then. I had to do, like you say, three albums a year and hit singles and all that. And I was really just into the record business. And I just walked away from it. I personally - I wasn't rejected. I was the one who decided to take a walk, and what happened was very helpful. I had learned that things work out for the best because what happened is I learned how to perform on stage a lot better. Now that I'm recording, my son Danny was responsible for getting a contract where they trust me and I just hand in the record. And thank God for him because it's allowed me the freedom to just express myself freely.

GROSS: You are a singer who, it seems to me, keeps getting deeper into songs as you - the longer you sing...

BENNETT: Right.

GROSS: ...That your phrasing just seems to become - to have more emotional depth...

BENNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...All the time.

BENNETT: You know why that happened? It's - I think I have the answer to that.

GROSS: Yeah.

BENNETT: It's so funny. When I used to sit around the house and watch my mom who just made one dress after another working on, you know, record-breaking time to make us - sew as many dresses as she can so she'd make a little more money for us to live by. And every once in a while - she would stay very calm and very concentrated on what she was doing. But every once in a while, she'd get angered. And she would take her dress and throw it over her shoulder. And she'd say, don't have me work on a bad dress. She says, if you give me a good dress, I don't mind doing this. She said, but don't have me ever work on a bad dress, on a cheap dress. And that's why I've just decided never to compromise. I think that's what it came from. I saw that, you know, she was able to sustain because she stayed with good quality. And I asked Sinatra one time, I said, why do you think that we've sustained so long through the years? He said, that's because we stayed with good songs. So I think, when you do something of quality, somehow or other, you may not be on top of the charts, but you're always respected. And you always have a place in society by doing something that's made very well.

GROSS: How do you think getting older is changing your voice? And if your voice is changing, how do you think that's changing how you approach a song and how you phrase the lyrics?

BENNETT: Yeah. Well, Bobby Hackett taught me to work on bel canto scales every day. And so I've been able to obtain four or five more notes on the bottom of my register. So now I'm a baritone tenor. And I take good care of my voice and myself.

DAVIES: Tony Bennett speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. There's one more interview with Tony Bennett in our archives. We'll hear that after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERRY MULLIGAN AND THE RALPH SHARON TRIO'S "TIME AFTER TIME/THE SECOND TIME AROUND")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Singer Tony Bennett is retiring from performing after eight decades. Let's listen to Terry's 1998 interview with him. Entertainer Bob Hope gave Bennett a big boost early in his career.

GROSS: I know you got to work with Bob Hope. Did you tour with him during wartime at any point?

BENNETT: No, it was after the war. And for about five years, I was just looking around for work. And then Pearl Bailey heard me down in Greenwich Village. And she was working in the club, the Greenwich Village Inn, and heard me rehearsing in the afternoon. And she told the owner, if you don't have him on the show, I'm not coming in here. And she got me started there. And then he came down from the Paramount Theater. He came down to hear Pearl and saw me on the show and got a big kick out of it and said, come on, you're coming up to the Paramount, and changed my name from Anthony Dominick Benedetto to Tony Bennett.

GROSS: Bob Hope changed it?

BENNETT: Yep. He said, let's Americanize you. We'll call you Tony Bennett (laughter). So it was a thrill. I've had that name ever since. And when I paint, it's Benedetto, my family name. And when I perform, it's Tony Bennett.

GROSS: What do you think you learned from Bob Hope in terms of show business?

BENNETT: Well, it's a nice Jewish expression, you know, show them you like them, you know? He'd tell - he always told me to - when you come out on a stage, (laughter) you know, just make sure that you show the people that you enjoy being there and you want to entertain them. And show them your enthusiasm.

GROSS: How do you do that?

BENNETT: You psych yourself out, and you just do it. After a while, it becomes - you realize that it's the right way. And then you really mean it.

GROSS: When you first signed to Columbia Records, this was in the early 1950s. Frank Sinatra was still on the label. And he and Mitch Miller occasionally had feuds about repertoire. Did you get to know Frank Sinatra during that period? Did you see yourselves as friends or as rivals?

BENNETT: No, I didn't know him at all at that time. But then, what happened was I was very frightened. I was a young artist. And I got this wonderful opportunity. Perry Como had me do a summer replacement and left me with a kind of a bare stage. In the summer replacement, they cut the budget away from his elaborate budget that he had and left me kind of with a bare stage on CBS. And I was very frightened about how to perform on television. Well, I just took a deep breath. And Sinatra was at the Paramount Theater for - with a reunion with Tommy Dorsey. And I said, I'm going to go backstage and talk to him.

And I was warned, look out, he could be pretty tough. So I said, no. But I love the way he sings. And I love him personally as a fan. I'm just going to go up and talk to him - found out that it was just the opposite of what everybody said about him. He was just wonderful to me and sat me right down in his dressing room and gave me some wonderful advice about not worrying about being nervous because he said the public likes that. He said, if you don't care, he said, why should the audience care? He said, if you're nervous, they're going to see that you care. So they're going to root for you. And the more they root for you, the more you'll give back to them, he said. And it'll just be fine. And it was wonderful advice.

GROSS: Do you feel that you learned things about singing from listening to Sinatra?

BENNETT: Oh, well, you know, if you listen to one, it's thievery. But if you listen to everybody, it's research.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BENNETT: So I listened to Sinatra. I listened to Bing Crosby. I listened to Louis Armstrong. You know, a lot of girl singers taught me how to sing. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. They're all wonderful stylists and do great things with intimate singing, the art of intimate singing.

GROSS: I want to pause here for some more music. And I think every time you've ever done FRESH AIR, I've managed to play something from one of the Tony Bennett-Bill Evans records. They're such extraordinary records. And...

BENNETT: Thank you.

GROSS: ...So I thought, this time around, we'd play "Some Other Time."

BENNETT: Oh, good.

GROSS: So let's hear that, and then we'll talk a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME OTHER TIME")

BENNETT: (Singing) Where has the time all gone to? Haven't done half the things we want to. Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time. This day was just a token. Too many words are still unspoken. Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time. Just when the fun is starting comes the time for parting. But let's be glad for what we've had and what's to come. There's so much more embracing still to be done, but time is racing. Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

GROSS: That's Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. And my guest is Tony Bennett. He has a new memoir, which is called "The Good Life."

In your memoir, you write a little bit about doing your two records with Bill Evans. And you loved working with him. And, God, these records are extraordinary. You say the problem, though, that you saw was - the depressing thing was watching how Bill Evans' drug habit interfered with his life. Did it interfere with his music, too, do you think? Did you feel it getting in the way at all of rehearsals or whatever?

BENNETT: Oh, no. It didn't affect him at all in any way. He went past that. He hated being addicted. He hated it. I told him - I said, I guess you didn't get enough love when you were young. He said, oh, love. He said, I wish someone would have hit me and knocked me out the first time I took a needle. He said, that was the worst thing that ever happened to me. And he was very, very sick at the end of his life. I can't tell you how horrid it was. It was just absolutely horrid. And I'll never forget that one night, I was in a small little town somewhere, and I got this call from Bill Evans. And it was six months before he died. And he said, Tony - he said, just think truth and beauty. He said, just forget the rest. That was his last words to me.

GROSS: Why do you think he said that?

BENNETT: Because he believed that that's the right way. He believed that that's what music's about. He believed that that's the road to correct music and correct living. Truth and beauty - you know, that's what life is all about.

GROSS: I want to ask you about Duke Ellington. It seems like you had a really nice relationship with him. You say that he used to send you flowers after he wrote a new song.

BENNETT: Yeah. Every time he wrote a new song, he sent me flowers.

GROSS: Why did he do that?

BENNETT: Well, 'cause he was a gentleman. It's old-fashioned, but it was correct. He was just courteous to people that he liked.

GROSS: Did he want you to sing this song? Is that why he sent them to you? I'm sure he didn't send flowers to everyone he knew after he wrote a song.

BENNETT: No, he liked me, and we were close. Our families were close. And he was - oh, what a - he was another master, great master.

GROSS: Would you choose an Ellington song that you recorded that you'd like us to play?

BENNETT: Yeah. "Solitude" is fine.

GROSS: Good. Let's hear that. And this is Tony Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(IN MY) SOLITUDE")

BENNETT: (Singing) In my solitude, you haunt me with reveries of days gone by. In my solitude, you taunt me with memories that never die. I sit in my chair. I'm filled with despair. There's no one could be so sad. With gloom everywhere, I sit, and I stare. I know that I'll soon go mad, go mad. In my solitude...

DAVIES: Tony Bennett on Duke Ellington's song "Solitude." We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Bennett after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN GETZ AND BILL EVANS' "BUT BEAUTIFUL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to Terry's 1998 interview with Tony Bennett. Last week it was announced he's retiring from performing. He's 95.

GROSS: Did you have personal relationships with a lot of songwriters?

BENNETT: Yes, I did. Harold Arlen was my very favorite. And I never met Yip Harburg, but Harold Arlen told me that Yip Harburg was the best lyric writer that ever lived. And he wrote with everyone - Ira Gershwin. I met Ira Gershwin. He was fantastic. But I had personal relationships with Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen and Jack Segal, Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

GROSS: Did anybody write songs especially for you? I know you were often asked to be the first person to record a song.

BENNETT: Johnny Mercer wrote "I Wanna Be Around" for me.

GROSS: That's an interesting story. You want to tell it?

BENNETT: Well, yeah. It's a wonderful story. You know, Sadie Vimmerstedt was a fan in Youngstown, Ohio. And she was an amateur songwriter. And she wrote, I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart. She wrote a fan letter to Johnny Mercer. And she said, Johnny, this sounds like something you would write. He said - and so he got such a kick out of it. He wrote the song. He finished it and gave her 50% of the song. And Sadie would - after the song was a hit, she would send me cards from all over, from Paris, from Russia, from England. And she'd say, thanks so much, Tony. She took vacations all over the world with the money that she made from that song.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "I Wanna Be Around" - Tony Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE AROUND")

BENNETT: (Singing) I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart, some somebody twice as smart as I. Or somebody who will swear to be true as you used to do with me, who'll leave you to learn that misery loves company. Wait and see. I mean, I want to be around to see how he does it when he breaks your heart to bits. Let's see if the puzzle fits so fine. That's when I'll discover that revenge is sweet as I sit there applauding from a front-row seat when somebody breaks your heart like you, like you broke mine.

DAVIES: Tony Bennett on one of his biggest hits of the 1960s. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1998. After eight decades in the business, Tony Bennett is retiring from performing. He's 95. But there's something to look forward to. In October, an album he recorded with Lady Gaga will be released featuring the songs of Cole Porter. On Monday's show, the songwriter of "Schmigadoon!," the series that lovingly satirizes musicals of the '40s and early '50s. We'll talk with Cinco Paul, who also co-created and co-wrote the series, which is streaming on Apple TV+. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Mike Villers. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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