Having just celebrated his 89th birthday on Aug. 3, Tony Bennett remains as potent a star as he’s ever been, with his recent Lady Gaga collaboration securing him a No. 1 record, his 18th Grammy, and a sold-out arena tour. But back in 1950, Bennett was listed in Variety as just one of four new signings for Columbia Records, newly under the stewardship of Mitch Miller.
Columbia in 1950 was a label in transition. How did you fit in?
When Mitch Miller came on, he was very educated in classical music. Unfortunately, when he signed me, I was a jazz singer. And he said, “Don’t do that.” So they gave me Percy Faith and his orchestra, and my first record was “Because of You” in 1951, which was No. 1 for 10 weeks.
Were there any other mentors who influenced your early career?
I remember running into George Burns in those days. And he said: “Son, you’re doing all right. Just know that it’s gonna take you seven years to learn how to walk on the stage properly.” And he was so accurate. You make so many mistakes when you first start.
What kind of mistakes?
I used to stay onstage too long. Fred Astaire saw me at the Hollywood Bowl 15 years later, and I guess I still stayed on the stage too long. Instead of criticizing me, he corrected me. He said, “You know, when you do a show and it’s absolutely perfect the way it is, just go right in there and pull out 15 minutes.” That was his way of telling me to work less.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s that you finally got to record straight jazz music, with Count Basie and Ralph Sharon.
Many years later, before Mitch died, he ran into my son, who manages me now. And he said, “Boy, did I make a mistake with your dad.” Whenever I tried to improvise, they would say, “No, just sing the melody.” And that was frustrating to me, because when I sing, I improvise. I’m very influenced by the African-American musicians who created jazz. It’s much better than rock and roll. It’s more spontaneous, and it never becomes old-fashioned.
When Variety reviewed “The Beat of My Heart” in 1958, we said you were singing “oldies.”
(Laughs) Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gersh-win — that was the greatest creative period. And to this day, when I go to Shanghai, and I sing those (American) songs, the audience starts singing them with me. Now I’m with Lady Gaga, and she has all these young fans right down front, and the kids are singing all those songs to me. No other country in the world has given the world that many great songs. They’re not old songs, and they’ll never die.