The Good Life
by Tony Bennett w/ Will Friedwald
Pocket Books, 1998, 312 pp.
This is a very interesting autobiography. Bennett tells us right away that he's not one to dwell on the past but at age 72 it's time for an overview. With wonderful detail Mr. Bennedetto (Bob Hope shortened it) takes us back to his grandparents' hard times in farming villages of Italy and their migration to New York City. Obviously he was tremendously close to his parents. His father, who died when Bennett was ten, is described as a great humanist with a wonderful voice. An older brother sang in the Metropolitan Opera choir as a child. At an early age our author showed not only vocal talent but artistic as well (one sketch from his adolescence is included). It may surprise you to find out that Bennett was a combat infantryman in Germany at the end of World War II and participated in the liberation of the concentration camp at Landsberg. His coming of age in multi-ethnic Astoria, Queens and experiences with racial and ethnic prejudice may have contributed to his later involvement in the civil rights movement. In 1965 Bennett participated in the Selma, Alabama march, rooming with Billy Eckstine.
After the war Bennett doggedly pursued a singing career, unemployed at times, scuffling on a dime a day, sitting in for free wherever he could and getting turned on to the sounds of bop! However, within five years he had recorded and soon signed with Columbia Records. Bennett's story from 1950 on is mostly one of success, interspersed with record company politics periodically challenging his commitment to quality songs and his leanings toward jazz. He's honest, though brief, about some of the hard knocks, including drug use and marital conflicts.
Knowing little about him before reading this book I was surprised by his jazz links, including performances with Ellington and Basie (albums with the latter), an album featuring jazz drummers (Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, Jo Jones, Candido) and frequent performances and/or albums with a wide range of jazz talents (to name a few Bill Evans, Bobby Hackett, Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims) and collaborations with arrangers Gil Evans, Neal Hefti and Don Costa.
To his credit, Bennett acknowledges the many folks from whom he learned the lessons of show business or helped him along the way, from Jimmy Durante to Pearl Bailey to Judy Garland to his sons, who are largely responsible for his amazing success with the youth market in the 1980's and '90's. It's almost a who's who of American entertainment in the second half of the century. But only occasionally does the name-dropping wear thin (when we're told for a second time that Sinatra considered Bennett the best singer in the business). For the most part it's proud affirmations of well-deserved kudos.
You may be surprised to know that Bennett continued developing his visual art talents. Eight of his beautiful paintings, including one of Duke Ellington, are included. If you're like me this book will send you searching out Bennett's recordings. So far I've checked out one of his albums with Bill Evans and his 1997 CD of songs associated with Billie Holiday. They certainly uphold his claims of dedication to quality material and sensitive interpretations.