ROME (Reuters) - Whenever crooner Tony Bennett returns to the land of his roots, he feels overwhelmed.
“When I sing in Rome or anywhere in Italy, I get a complex,” he said after performing for a sold-out hall at Rome’s Parco della Musica.
“I know too much history, too much about the magnificence of Italy, the place where the orchestra was invented, the first piano, the first violin,” he said, the feeling of awe mixed with pride clear in his voice.
With an easy laugh, he said he has come across singing waiters in Italy that could give some professional singers a run for their money.
Bennett, currently on a tour of Europe that will also take him to Spain, Monte Carlo, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland before it ends in August, left the Rome crowd sublimely stunned that he could still belt out his famous songs with style despite his 85 years.
Don’t expect a light show or sound effects. A Tony Bennett concert, even if held in an auditorium or a piazza, feels as intimate as if it were in a small club in Greenwich Village. In fact, a number of people in the audience said later they felt as if he were singing just for them.
He is accompanied on the European tour by Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Harold Jones on drums and Marshall Wood on upright bass. His daughter Antonia, 38, opens the show for him and they do several duets.
Bennett clearly has a soft spot for Italy, its people, its food and its musical heritage but the softest spot is for his parents, who came from the poor Calabria region in the deep south.
His father, Giovanni Benedetto, a grocer, left the tiny, dirt poor mountain hamlet of Podargoni in 1906 for the Astoria section of Queens in New York City, where Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in 1926.
“The legend from all my relatives was that he used to stand at the top of the mountain in Podargoni and the whole valley would hear him sing,” Bennett said by telephone after his Rome concert.
His mother, who worked in a clothing sweatshop in New York earning a penny a dress, was the daughter of immigrants from the same region of southern Italy. His father died when Tony was 10.
Like Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra before him, Bennett began as a singing waiter.
“I remember saying very clearly to myself and the musicians I was with then that if I never become famous or successful I’m going to do this for the rest of my life,” he said. “That’s how much I loved entertaining people”.
Bennett dropped out of high school to help support his widowed mother. He served in World War Two and after some false starts had his first big hit in 1951 with “Because of You”.
“My mom did something that changed my life. She would make as many dresses as possible but when she got a bad dress she would throw it over her shoulder and say ‘don’t let me work on a bad dress, only the good dresses’,” he said.
“Later that became my whole premise with music. I said ‘I don’t want a hit record, I want a hit catalog. I don’t want to do one song that isn’t intelligent or quality music.’”.
The 1950s were dotted with hits such as “Rags to Riches,” “Blue Velvet,” and in 1962 he released what would become his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.
Bennett likes to recall that he recorded San Francisco in one take because “I was prepared” and says it still astonishes young artists that he prefers to record in so few takes even now.
His two “Duets” albums in 2006 and 2011 were smash hits and brought him wide appreciation among younger listeners because of his collaboration with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Bono, Dixie Chicks, Sting, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones.
Indeed, the two million-selling albums have introduced old classic such as “Stranger in Paradise”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, “Rags to Riches”, “I Wanna Be Around”, “The Lady is a Tramp” and “Body and Soul” to millions of young people.
Bennett, who is planning an all jazz album with Lady Gaga, has some fatherly - or even grandfatherly - advice for young artists.
“Fame is very threatening. You might be very famous and then go right down and broke because of some artist that comes along who’s better.
“You’re supposed to be the business for a long time. You shouldn’t think of fame, you should think of quality, then you stay in the business all the time,” he said.
He also has some pointed advice for record companies, with whom he had his share of scrapes in the 1960s when they forced him to sing contemporary rock songs.
“Record companies should trust artists more, rather than order them to sing trite music, something that will be forgotten in two weeks or 10 weeks and go to the junkyard,” he said.
Every day, Bennett, while reflecting on the ups and downs of his long life and career, enjoys his other passion: painting. He paints under his real name, Anthony Benedetto, creating mostly landscapes and cityscapes.
“Rembrandt said there’s only one master and that’s nature and the more you become an artist and study nature, you realize that nobody in the world, including Rembrandt, ever painted as good as nature. Nature is the boss. We are nature ourselves. Nature is our god, that’s how I feel about it,” he said.
Bennett came up from “complete poverty” and has been a social activist most of his life, taking an active part in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s.
He calls famous people who don’t want to acknowledge their poor roots “failures”.
Bennett and his wife Susan established a non-profit organization, Exploring the Arts, that has raised millions of dollars to support arts program in New York public schools.
“When you come from humble beginnings and become famous you should help other people from humble beginnings and support them. You can’t forget them. You can’t just close the door and forget your background,” he said.
Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Paul Casciato