It may be no surprise that Tony Bennett's love for music and performing is in his blood line.
"My father used to sing in Podàrgoni, a little town out in Calabria, Italy," Bennett said. "And he impressed my brother and myself as children. … He used to sing on top of a mountain and the whole valley would hear him."
Bennett was born in 1926 and grew up in Astoria, Queens, in New York City listening to music and sharing it with his family.
"We grew up during the Depression, and when you bought a record in those days the whole family had to like it. You couldn't buy a record for yourself. … And everybody contributed," he said. "The grandparents, the parents, the young relatives would always talk about the music that we liked. My brother was older than I was, and he liked jazz and he influenced me."
By age 10, Bennett found his niche for performing. He sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge and went on to attend New York's High School of Industrial Art. But at 16 he dropped out of school to help support his family, and it was then that he decided to make a living as a professional singer.
His first gig: working as a singing waiter in Queens making $15 a week.
In 1944, Bennett's performing career was interrupted when he joined the Army during World War II. Stationed in France and Germany, Bennett wrote of his experience in his 1998 memoir, "The Good Life":
"The main thing I got out of my military experience was the realization that I am completely opposed to war. Every war is insane, no matter where it is or what it's about. Fighting is the lowest form of human behavior. It's amazing to me that with all the great teachers of literature and art, and all the contributions that have been made on this very precious planet, we still haven't evolved a more humane approach to the way we work out our conflicts."
Back in the states after the war, Bennett continued performing whenever he could and studied at the American Theater Wing on the GI Bill. But his big break came in 1949, when Pearl Bailey — one of the most popular black Broadway performers of the time — spotted Bennett's talent and asked him to open for an act she was doing in Greenwich Village, N.Y.
It worked out that Bob Hope, who was performing in New York, was invited to the show and he liked Bennett's performance.
The rest, some would say, is history. Hope took Bennett on the road and helped him to cut his first demo in 1950, but this was truly the start of Bennett's career. To date, he's won 14 Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. Bennett's latest CD is called "Tony Bennett Sings the Ultimate American Songbook." Click here to visit Bennett's Web site.
In 1928, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five released their recording of a 12-bar blues composition by Joe "King" Oliver. The three-minute, 78 RPM record is "West End Blues." Bennett says his brother introduced him to Armstrong. "And my first impression was Louis Satchmo Armstrong … 'West End Blues.' He invented in popular music, everything that we'd ever hear. Whether it's hip-hop or grunge or rap. He invented all that," Bennett said.
Bennett said, "The reason I liked Louis Armstrong is that the minute you heard him, just the first two bars, everyone started smiling. He made everybody smile."
Fred Astaire was known to many in the 1930s as a Broadway stage and Hollywood screen dancer. But Bennett loves Astaire for introducing a Cole Porter song to the public when he sang it in the 1932 film, "The Gay Divorcee."
Bennett explains that Astaire's version of "Night and Day" makes his playlist because "it's a song that everybody adores when they hear it. It's a great, great song. … All the great composers, Ervin Berlin, George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, you know — when they wrote a song, and this was in the '20s and '30s they said the only one that introduce it is Fred Astaire."
"[Astaire's] an amazing performer and songs like 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' and 'Isn't It a Lovely Day to Get Caught in the Rain,' 'Foggy Day in Londontown' — all these great, great songs were introduced by Fred Astaire," said Bennett. "Everybody thinks of him as a dancer, but he actually created the great American songbook."
Frank Sinatra's 1955 album, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," had a thematic mood of isolation and love lost. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 100 in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The title track from the album is also much adored by Bennett.
"My master is Frank Sinatra," Bennett said. "'In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning' … Sinatra would have called it a saloon song, which is really fantastic. It's the opposite of working in a huge stadium like they do today. Millions and millions of people so up like a football game. It's very intimate so that the artist sings just to you, not to 10,000 people and uh, that's how everybody started in show business."
Johnny Mercer, hailing from Savannah, Ga., was known in the 1930s-'60s as a popular songwriter and singer. He wrote lyrics to more than 1,000 songs in his lifetime including "Emily." Bennett said, "No one wrote American lyrics than Johnny Mercer."
The reason Bennett likes Mercer's song "Emily" is because "[Mercer] invented a word, and that's what Shakespeare was famous for, and in the song he said when my eyes visualize a family, I see dreamily, Emily too. So the word dreamily was never written before. He was so creative, he invented words that were never said before. He had the God-given gift of knowing how to write with American lyrics, not British lyrics, but American lyrics."
In the late 1980s, a female vocalist hit the American pop-music scene. One of her biggest fans is Bennett.
"I love k.d. lang. I just love the way she sings. Anything she sings. She's that way. Very genuine," said Bennett.
One of his favorite songs she performs is "If We Never Meet Again," calling it "a great little song."
"She's so honest and sincere and wholesome," said Bennett. "She's very, very clear about herself. I mean outside of Judy Garland, I think she's the best singer I've ever heard for popular singing."
In 2002, Bennett and lang released an album together entitled "A Wonderful World."