Tony Bennett wasn’t always Tony Bennett. He was a singing waiter named Joe Bari and, before that, he was Anthony Dominick Benedetto, son of a New York grocer.
Recruited by Pearl Bailey, Bari (or Benedetto) found himself on a multi-act bill with Bob Hope in charge.
Moments before showtime, Hope asked the young crooner his name, and the comedian quickly dismissed the stage moniker Joe Bari as “too theatrical.” Then Hope inquired about the performer’s real name, which Hope deemed “too long for any marquee.”
So Hope named him Tony Bennett.
“I was shocked. It happened so fast. It’s like something you’d see in a movie musical,” says Bennett, speaking from his New York residence. “I came onstage and (Hope) said, `Here’s a new singer we found in Greenwich Village. He’s Tony Bennett.’ I just couldn’t believe I was walking onstage with a new name.”
Nearly 43 years later, Bennett is one of the most unflappable, consistent and gracious performers in show business. (During a 30-minute interview, he’ll say good things about more than a dozen peers.) Bennett, who performs with a musical trio in Springfield Sunday night, doesn’t take his reputation as “the best singer in the business” – Frank Sinatra’s description – lightly.
“It’s taught me to become disciplined. It’s also kept me inspired,” he says. “It’s almost like being Houdini. I have to come up with a trick that’s as good as the last one.”
His most recent release, “Perfectly Frank,” a 24-song CD filled with Sinatra covers, handles that task. It’s received rave reviews and continues to be a hot seller.
“I’m 66 years old,” he says proudly, “and I’m on the Billboard charts.” Bennett calls a substantial portion of his fans “a giant audience that Madison Avenue has completely ignored for years now.”
Throughout his career, Bennett resisted overtures to record material outside his “torch and saloon” style. One record industry executive even suggested that Bennett cover Janis Joplin songs.
“I haven’t compromised through the years. I stayed with very good music and never did a piece of junk just to make a buck,” Bennett says. “If you’re stimulated, you feel genuine about the fact you gave it an honest shot and that you didn’t sell out. You didn’t take a dive just to make money.
“That’s why I like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. They put integrity before money.”
Bennett still performs 200 shows each year and even on a recent “off” day, he remains busy.
After the interview, Bennett says, he’ll attend an afternoon rehearsal with Liza Minnelli (the duo is performing Christmas songs on “Oprah” Dec. 24) and, at night, he’ll perform “America the Beautiful” at a New York Knicks game. During his free time, he’ll paint, a hobby for which he’s earned acclaim.
Bennett found it odd when told he will be performing in a 7,000-seat arena in Springfield.
“I usually play in 2,700-seat theaters,” he said, “but I’ve also played to 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Sunday’s show, he says, will feature an Ellington medley, “some best American pop songs” and his own hits, including “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
More than three decades ago, Bennett recorded “San Francisco,” a song as associated with him as a bow tie is associated with a tuxedo.
Bennett says his longtime music director Ralph Sharon (who will lead the band trio Sunday) selected the song, which originally was released as a B side to another single.
“(Sharon) said, `The people in San Francisco adore their city.’ We had no idea how popular it would be. We thought it would be a local hit,” Bennett says.
“The greatest thing that happened to me was when I read the New York Times and there was a picture of boys in Vietnam about to come home. The caption said they were singing `I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ “