RIP Tony Bennett: The legendary singer on Morning Becomes Eclectic (1990)

Written by Andrea Domanick and Marion Hodges

Tony Bennett in 1990. Photo by Bob King/Redferns.

Legendary singer Tony Bennett, a defining voice of the American Songbook known for works like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” has died at age 96. 

Bennett died Friday in his hometown of New York City, according to a representative for the singer. 

With a career spanning eight decades, the singer born Anthony Dominick Benedetto would become synonymous with the word “crooner,” a self-described “tenor who sings like a baritone” with a rich, jazz-inflected vocal range and a genius for creating new standards while redefining the classics. Equally definitive was his warm, charm-exuding persona and suave, dapper style, a timeless combo that, in combination with his omnivorous musical appetite, imbued Bennett with a singular cross-genre, cross-generational appeal, duetting with everyone from Judy Garland to Lady Gaga. 

Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, but continued to release music and perform through 2021. That year, at age 95, he reached the Billboard Top 10 with Love for Sale, his second duet album with Lady Gaga, and commemorated his retirement with a two-night performance at Radio City Music Hall. 

More: MBE playlist: RIP masterful interpreter of the American Songbook, Tony Bennet

In 1990, ahead of a big tour stop at the Hollywood Bowl, Bennett — a self-proclaimed public radio fan — visited Morning Becomes Eclectic (decked out in a full suit and tie, naturally) down in KCRW’s basement studio for a candid conversation with then-host Tom Schnabel. On the heels of Bennet’s newly-released, semi-autobiographical album Astoria: Portrait of the Artist, Schnabel shepherds the singer through key songs from the record and points beyond to dive deep into Bennet’s storied career and personal life.

To commemorate the singer’s life and legacy, we’ve surfaced the interview for the first time since its broadcast. Bennett goes deep on his songwriting, the different “personalities” of music and painting, and his enduring ties to his neighborhood in Astoria. He also talks singing with Count Basie, why public radio is “where things are really at,” and more.  

Tom Schnabel: Where is home for you now?

Tony Bennett: Well, it's a mailing address. [Laughs] I live in New York City, but I do about 200 [tour] dates a year, all over the world. I just came back from Tokyo, Osaka, and Hawaii. And I've been here for about five days before I go into the Hollywood Bowl.

Do you like touring?

I do. I've been doing it for 45 years, and I'm still interested in it. It's a great education for me, because I also paint and I'm afforded to go to Scotland — the Highlands — and paint there… all these wonderful places that I’ve dreamed of going to paint. Because I love landscape painting.

Can you tell us a bit more about your relationship to both painting and music — do you feel it’s the same artistry just expressed differently, or does each one represent something different?

Well, they're different in their personality. Performing in front of people is very gratifying and challenging, but there's a beautiful balance for me in my life. Because when I paint, there's just the blank page. Then you pray that you come up with a good one. It's private, no audience until you're able to edit it and show your best work.

Tony Bennett poses in his painting studio, part of his 2007 art book In The Studio. Photo by Mark Seliger.

Would you say that painting is becoming more integrated into how you present yourself, especially now that you have a painting displayed at the United Nations?

I have a permanent painting in the United Nations lobby — a peace painting of a group of girls around the maypole with all different flags of every nation, and a peace dove on top. 

And in a few days, the 19th of September [1990], I'm singing a salute to [Mikhail] Gorbachev at the Waldorf Astoria, and they blew that painting up as the backdrop. So I'm very thrilled about it. It's a nice thing to contribute to.

Do you have any favorite painters besides yourself?

When I walked in here, it's a museum of Matisse. David Hockney is a grand friend of mine, and he’s said New York painters are getting too serious. He says that they’re too gloomy. He said, “There should be more Matisse, there should be another Matisse somewhere.” And he's right. It's all full of life and love and beauty. And that's what it's really about. That's what paint is… I personally feel that painters should do that kind of thing.

“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” 

Let’s turn now to your very first hit — “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” — Can you recall the first time you sang it?

Yes, it was at the Greenwich Village Inn, and Pearl Bailey put me on a show. Bob Hope came in to see Pearl and liked what I did on stage and [then he] took me to the Paramount Theatre, and actually kicked me into what they call “big time.”

He’s the one who had you change your stage name from “Joe Bari” to “Tony Bennett?”

[Laughs] He didn't like it, he said; “Let's Americanize you.” He said, “What's your real name?” I said “Anthony Dominick Benedetto.” He said, “Well, that's too long for the marquee” — he had no idea that there would ever be an Engelbert Humperdinck — “let's Americanize you and call you Tony Bennett.” And he came out on stage and actually announced me that way.

And “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is the song that really launched your career, isn’t it?

It did. That was a very fortunate song for me, because it started me out. It allowed me to get booked in Cleveland, and follow Billie Holiday in a place on Euclid Avenue called Moe's Main Street — Art Tatum used to play there. It was a great experience being around those magnificent artists.

Tony Bennett at ages 15 and 63, on the respective front and back covers of his 1990 album Astoria. Images courtesy of Columbia Recordings.

New York remains so much a part of you after all these years, which brings us to the conceit of your album Astoria: Portrait of the Artist. The cover shows you at 15, and there’s an additional photo inside at 63 posing in the same spot where all that’s really changed is the cars. The expression of your evolution as an artist through the years, while staying grounded in your roots is apparent. And clearly the songs on this album were chosen for very special reasons. Can you tell us more about “I Was Lost, I Was Drifting?”

Yeah. This is when I came out of the service. I was in the infantry in France and Germany. And when I came home, you had to start out all over again. And I was lost, and I was drifting. But what happened is, fortunately, the GI Bill of Rights allowed me to join the American Theatre Wing which had wonderful teachers in every field of theatrics. 

I had some good teaching there about the basic rules of performing, and it still took me about seven years after I got out of the service before I acquired my first job. So it was kind of tough going around, taking auditions, getting turned down, and getting to learn how to do it.

“I Was Lost, I Was Drifting” 

And this album title, Astoria: Portrait of the Artist is so evocative. What’s Astoria like? Particularly, what was your part of the neighborhood like? And was your home a real Italian home?

Yeah. Real Italian. [Laughs.] I had a great Italian family. All the aunts and uncles and my grandfather used to come over every Sunday, and they would encourage my brother and my sister and I to perform for them. We had a very warm,very close family — something that's really missing today in many families throughout America, unfortunately. 

It was beautiful because it was during the depression, but I didn't feel that at all. I just felt this great comfort with the whole family around us. Astoria is a blue collar town. It's 15 minutes from New York City, but it's almost like a city on the outskirts of Chicago — real family oriented area. The workers of the city are all there, and they're the most honest people. It's a great neighborhood because if you wanted to talk to somebody, they would be very open and gregarious to you. Or if you wanted to be left alone, they knew enough to leave you alone. It's always been that way, and it's still that way. Even now, it's very much the same now, the area is still very much the same, because they're no nonsense people. There's not a snob in the area. It’s hard working people: teachers, secretaries, bus drivers, the skyscraper builders, all kinds of congruous jobs that make the whole city work. They're the workers of the city, and they live 15 minutes from New York City. And you wouldn't believe it, after this whole gigantic monument of cement in New York City… in 15 minutes, when you go into Astoria, there are a lot of trees and pretty little neighborhoods. Nice little streets with good neighbors. I go there everyday because the East River Tennis Club is right there, and it’s nice to hear the predominant accent of Astoria.

Shifting back to the music, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” started your career in 1950, but your big international break came in 1962. Could you tell us about “I Left My Heart in San Francisco?”

Ralph Sharon has been with me for 25 years, he's my music director. He found the song when we were in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and we were on our way to San Francisco for the first time. He was intelligent enough to know that people in that city adore their city. And he said, “This might be a good song for us.” He said, “We're going for our first time at the Fairmont Hotel, why don't we do this special song for this city?” 

I had “Once Upon A Time,” a song from the Ray Bolger Show on Broadway. I adored that song, so I said, “Well, let's put it on the other side of ‘Once Upon a Time’” — thinking it would be a secondary hit. I still like the version of “Once Upon a Time,” but boy it just flipped right over the minute we sang it… even at rehearsal in San Francisco! Del Costello, the promotion man from CBS at the time came running up to me, and said: “You've got to record this song immediately.” And we took his instinct, followed it, and walked in and recorded it. 

It's just something that's become a blessing for me because I travel all over the world and perform in South America, Belgium, Norway, Britain, Italy, Hong Kong, and Japan … And sometimes you run into people saying: “Oh here comes the ugly American.” Not with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” They have such respect for that city. Since 1962 until now, which is 1990, I've never met anyone who said they didn't like that city that’s visited there. They just adore it. It’s one of the great, and romantic adventures in their life.

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” 

Let’s talk about your time working with the Basie band. There's a song originally sung by Louis Armstrong — “Jeepers Creepers” — that you recorded with Count Basie and his Orchestra. When did that recording happen?

That was in about ‘56, I was the first white guy to ever sing with Basie. It’s the first time that ever happened, and it was quite a joy. Basie was… Well, what is it that William Blake says, “When you stand on the shoulders of a great man you can see for 1000s of miles?” Boy, he just epitomizes the idea of what a musician really is all about. He had a great aura.

“Jeepers Creepers” (Tony Bennett with the Count Basie Orchestra)”

You’ve worked with so many great orchestras: trumpeter Joe Newman, Chico Hamilton, Art Blakey, Milt Hinton, Candido, the great percussionist, Sabu, another great Cuban musician. And of course, Count Basie. Does it feel like a tribute to your spirit and generosity that so many great musicians have wanted to work with you?

Well, these are the great artists. These are the impressionists, like the turn of the century impressionist painters that were called scribblers. No one paid attention to them.

But the people you just mentioned, [they’re the people] that will go down in history someday, because they were the great contributors of American music. The Basie band, Stan Getz, and Bill Evans — people like that, they live forever because they really did a lot of homework and put a lot of heart and soul into what they were doing.

… You know, I'm a fan of this network, this public radio [station], because I go to every kind of town possible. I do 200 dates a year, as I told you, and it gives me a great sense of sanity to listen to public radio because it just puts my finger on the pulse of where things are really at. I love this station.






Tom Schnabel


Ariana Morgenstern