Tony Bennett’s voice is one of the luminous wonders in America’s great treasury of popular music. The first few notes of his recordings of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or “Because of You” or “Rags to Riches” are enough to trigger instant emotion in the hearts and minds of millions of people.
Fewer are aware that the burry-voiced Bennett is also a highly regarded painter--one who has actively pursued his visual muse all his adult life. Signing his paintings Anthony Benedetto (his real name), he has exhibited in galleries throughout the world. Four of his oils have been transformed into 12-color lithographs, and recently he designed first-day covers for a Flag Stamp series issued by the United Nations.
This weekend, Bennett’s Orange County fans will have opportunities to experience both the musical and the visual aspects of his work. Today, he will be at Bullock’s at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa from 2:30 to 4 p.m., opening a 7-day exhibit of his art. Sunday night, he will sing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
The connection that Bennett feels between his painting and his music is reflected in the work itself. As a singer, he always has been a masterful interpreter, and his paintings--usually done from life--are similarly reflective variations on places and things.
“What I like,” Bennett said by phone from his New York City apartment earlier this week, “is the fact that by doing (both music and art), you don’t get burned out on either of them. Like today, I’m here in my studio, painting in a quiet, meditative sort of way, and it’s all sort of thoughtful and internal. When I’m singing, I’m in front of people, spontaneous, outgoing, reacting to what’s happening. So the two things feed one another.
“And the best part,” he continued, “is that by doing the two, you never get off stage artistically. It’s not like, ‘Well, I did the show and now I’m going to go home and do a crossword puzzle.’ It allows you to stay in the creative process for your whole life.
“When you paint,” he continued, “you learn about the economy of line, form, color, nuance--all the rudiments. And those are things that pertain to all of the arts, whether it’s music, painting, cooking or just playing a game of golf.
“By working on those rudiments in a disciplined way, slowly but surely each day, as long as you keep searching and learning--you grow. Once you have them under control, you can let things flow and reach out for an intuitive thing. It’s ironic, but having control of your technique is what lets you get subconscious, and lets things happen without thinking.”
It is precisely that effortless, intuitive quality that has helped make Bennett a world-class musician for more than 3 decades. With 90 albums, shelves full of awards and SRO audiences awaiting his virtually nonstop concert tours, he has parlayed his blend of craft and spontaneity into one of the great careers in pop music.
But Bennett still takes nothing for granted. At 62, he can recall the struggling years, and he looks apprehensively at young performers who expect instant success without dues-paying.
“There’s an old Italian phrase,” he said, “ ‘One step at a time.’ If you think you’re going to get a castle in Spain and retire in 6 months, it’s a pretty shallow and unhappy way of looking at life.
“I’m really concerned about the young performers today who shoot up past the moon and then shoot right back down again. There are only a few, like Bruce Springsteen or Madonna or Michael Jackson, who have the skills to stay up there. And there are thousands of acts who are being told they’re going to be big, and 6 months later they’re history.
“I kind of skyrocketed when I first started. I was a young Michael Jackson for a couple of years--had everybody screaming at me. But when that faded, I had to go and start playing one town after another. And after 10 years of doing that, I finally learned my craft.”
Tony Bennett sings Sunday night at 8 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $10 to $28. Information: (714) 556-2787.