It’s hard to fathom that Tony Bennett hasn’t been here forever, smiling broadly in a tux and singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But not only was there a world before Tony Bennett, there was a Tony Bennett before Tony Bennett: Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens in 1926, he broke in the early ‘50s with “Because of You” and a series of elegant albums on Columbia. He struggled at times with the dominance of rock music, but he’s been on an upswing since the mid-'80s. Between a popular MTV Unplugged album with guest spots for Elvis Costello andk.d. lang and two duets records, he’s kept up with pop culture and encouraged respect for the American songbook.
Bennett is also a painter — he’s a particular admirer of John Singer Sargent — as well. We spoke to the singer — who comes to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Saturday night — about his influences.
My Italian American family: Growing up in Astoria, Queens, during the Depression we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on entertainment. So every Sunday afternoon my family would gather around myself, my brother and my sister and we would perform for them. I remember looking forward all week to Sunday so I could get the chance to sing and perform for my family, and they were so encouraging that I clearly remember during that time that I decided I wanted to be a performer…. That is how I discovered who I am, and it was my family whose love and support made me feel it could be possible.
Leonardo da Vinci: The creativity and passion that Leonardo da Vinci has was something that only happens every 500 years. And I recall that to the very end of his life he felt like he had never finished anything — and that was very inspiring to me as it made me realize that your art is never completed: You can always learn and discover more about your craft and it’s a continuous process every day that never really ends.
Frank Sinatra: I was 10 years younger than Frank Sinatra and was one of the original bobby-soxers when he was hitting it so big at the Paramount Theater. He was very much like a mentor and then a brother to me in later years. I remember early in my career I had a dilemma as I was getting my first TV special — it was a summer replacement show for “The Perry Como Show” — and they had no budget so I just had a bare stage and nothing else. I was so worried about how it would turn out.... [Sinatra] gave me the best advice that to this day I have never forgotten: He said it was good that I was nervous because it showed that I cared, and that the audience would sense this and as a result they would root for me, as they would know that I was concerned that they would be entertained and enjoy themselves. To this day, I still get butterflies before I go out onstage, and I remember Frank’s words and know that it’s when the butterflies don’t happen anymore that you really have to be worried.
Art Tatum: After I returned home from being a foot soldier in World War II, I was fortunate enough to be able to study under the GI Bill of Rights. One teacher in particular told me to not to imitate other singers so I would just sound like “another part of the chorus” but to find jazz instrumental artists I admired and try to understand what I liked about their style. I always loved the jazz pianist Art Tatum, who would build his performance — he would move in and out of the melody — and it would create a very interesting presentation. At the time all the singers — Sinatra, Dick Haymes — would sing what I call a “sweet, straight line,” so I established a style where I would change my phrasing or end with a big finish to a song and I was able to create my own style.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, 8 p.m. May 12, or (714) 556-2787.