Early Thanksgiving morning, Tony Bennett woke up in a strange bed on the wrong side of Central Park.
For years, he has lived with his third wife in a Trump building on Central Park South, but the couple spent the night in a Madison Avenue hotel to avoid the security gridlock around the venues of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which, like Mr. Bennett, turned 90 this year.
Today, some 70 years into a career that began as a singing waiter in Astoria, Queens, Mr. Bennett would ride on the penultimate parade float — taking second billing only to Santa and his sleigh — and sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with Miss Piggy. While his live performance with a Muppet wouldn’t be a career highlight, a stumble as the float swayed back into motion and a quiet hug from the famous pig. would go viraland punctuate a year when it already seemed like All Tony, All the Time.
Mr. Bennett started 2016 by winning his 19th Grammy. The Empire State Building was illuminated in his honor, the switch thrown by his apparently unlikely friend and recording partner Lady Gaga. HarperCollins has published a new book of his recollections of important people in his life. And on Tuesday, December 20, NBC will air a two-hour prime-time special commemorating his birthday.
“I can’t believe all this is happening,” Mr Bennett said. “I’m 90 years old.”
Since NBC aired the last Bob Hope special in 1996, when the comedian was 93, prime-time network television has hardly welcomed a country for the elderly. Doug Vaughan, the executive vice president for special programs and late night at NBC, said, “Not that any 90-year-old doesn’t deserve to mark that milestone, but Tony is such an icon and such a beloved American legend” that giving him a big block of prime time wasn’t a difficult decision. (It didn’t hurt that his last NBC special, for his 80th birthday, won seven Emmy Awards.)
“Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come” is built around a September concert at Radio City Music Hall that featured singers such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Bublé, Leslie Odom Jr. and Lady Gaga greeting him. Recorded performances came from Billie Joel, Elton John and Bob Dylan. There are interview segments with Mr. Bennett scattered, and a show-within-a-show comedy sketch starring Alec Baldwin, who reprises his “Saturday Night Live” persona of blissfully clueless and super-excited Tony Bennett.
Mr. Baldwin said the key to capturing Mr. Bennett, beyond the caricature, was to portray “a guy for whom there are no blemishes in the road.”
“The thing about this guy,” Mr. Baldwin said, “is that he’s so positive — if I were as talented as he is, I’d be positive, too — and so old-school, which means the lesson you get underneath everything Tony does is that performing should be fun. “
Actually, it seems pretty fun to be Tony Bennett. In public, Mr. Bennett’s vocabulary is dominated by three exclamations: Great, Wow and Fantastic, the last of which he proclaims with a hard punch to the second syllable. And those words seem appropriate, considering his exciting career ride.
Beginning with a No. 1 recording of “Because of You” in 1951, Mr. Bennett sang through a decade of hits with sometimes marginal material, culminating in the international bestseller “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1962. Threatened with sinking into casino-act irrelevance for the next two decades, concentrating in artistic problems, concentrating on one point of alcohol and focus in artistic treatment and concentration of alcohol and alcohol problems. on American Songbook standards. And aided by his son Danny, who became his manager in 1979, Mr. Bennett climbed back into the pop culture consciousness through the ’80s and reached a new demographic-challenging peak with a 1994 “MTV Unplugged” recording.
In his ninth decade alone, Mr. Bennett has sold 10 million recordings, including two best-selling albums of duets with a myriad of other singers. Two years ago, he became the oldest performer to have a No. 1 album when he paired with Lady Gaga on the standards recording “Cheek to Cheek.” He’s pulled off the neat trick of constant career rejuvenation while remaining exactly the same.
“I could have retired 16 years ago,” Mr. Bennett said one night last month, “but I just love what I do.”
Just then, he sat down for dinner in the theater district at the traditional early bird hour of 5 p.m. In his case, the reservation was necessary because he was booked at the adjacent City Stages auditorium at 7 p.m., sitting for a public interview about his new book, “Just Getting Started.” There’s also a new Sony album collecting the performances from his NBC special, with a deluxe three-disc set available that features a selection of rare recordings from his archive.
“We’re sold out everywhere I play,” Mr Bennett said. “The audience goes crazy for the show. They know I’m 90, and I come out and I’m in top shape. After the third or fourth song, they take off. I get five or six standing ovations a night. When they start acting like that, I just go home very pleased.”
During dinner, Mr. Bennett repeated himself occasionally. “I forgot what I said,” he admitted more than once, and apologized. Later, being interviewed about his life in front of a large and appreciative crowd at City Stages, he did not remember a primary anecdote that appears in his book about how he met his current wife, Susan Benedetto – she took the birth name of her husband – a 50-year-old former high school teacher. (She was invited backstage when she was 19 and president of the San Francisco Tony Bennett fan club. They married in 2007.)
But while there are signs of age, Mr. Bennett also displays a voracious curiosity. “I still insist that I can improve as I go,” he said. He just started learning the basics of jazz piano with Bill Charlap, his accompanist on the disc “The Silver Lining”, a collection of Jerome Kern songs that won him his latest Grammy. His first was received in 1962.
“It’s the same with painting,” he said. “I paint every day. And just by doing it every day, you get better.”
The recent recording with Mr. Charlap could be a case study to support Mr. Bennett’s contention. Although his voice is less rounded and more youthful than when he was in his 50s, Mr. Bennett’s performances on “The Silver Lining” stand in comparison to those he did with the jazz pianist Bill Evans four decades ago, securing his status as a serious performing artist. “Tony sings so deep and inside – it’s almost in a private place, yet he has the courage to share fully,” Mr Charlap said.
In presenting Jerome Kern’s 14 songs, Mr. Bennett not only displays technical mastery but also a wonderful sense of discretion.
“The more Tony goes on, the more he understands that what you leave out is important,” said Scott Simon, the National Public Radio journalist and co-author of Mr. Bennett’s latest book. “He has all these stories about Fred Astaire getting a dance routine as good as possible and then taking 15 minutes off. He now knows in his bones what to leave.”
Even after the flurry of presentations and products tied to his extended birthday celebration, Mr. Bennett plans to keep working. He has 30 dates on his schedule for the first half of 2017 and is thinking of recording a new album dedicated to the songs of husband and wife songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman. “I might do it with Gaga,” Mr. Bennett said, “or maybe just Bill Charlap.”
“Tony is all about moving forward,” said his son Danny. “He tells me, ‘Hey, as long as my voice doesn’t waver and people like me, I’ll keep singing until I die.’
The morning he awoke in the hotel room on Madison Avenue, Mr. Bennett packed for the Macy’s parade on what was expected to be a blustery and blustery day, donning a heavy gray woolen suit and a blue overcoat. He bought ear muffs with his wife, and she stuffed hand warmers into his jacket pockets.
Waiting in an SUV to board the float, Mr. Bennett appeared tired and was mostly calm. What little he talked about was either distant in the past – anecdotes about Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Charlie Chaplin – or completely in the moment, as when he rolled down the tinted side window to scan Central Park. “The trees are beautiful,” he said.
Then a woman moved up to his side of the jeep and presented Mr. Bennett with a paper plate piled high with canola. “They are homemade just for you,” she told him. “You’re even more beautiful in person.”
“Wow,” said Mr. Bennett, “let me see that.” He bit into a vanilla cannoli.
“Oh my God,” the woman screamed, “wait until I tell everyone that Tony Bennett ate my cannoli!”
A little later, as the moment approached for him to board the float, the sky brightened.
Mrs. Benedetto leaned toward her husband and gestured toward the sunshine. “You lead a charmed life, darling,” she said.
Mr. Bennett took her hand, closed his eyes, and sank into his seat with a contented sigh.