Tony Bennett going strong at 85, celebrates birthday Wednesday

CLEVELAND - Eighty-five years ago on August 3, 1926, in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born. A name that Cleveland’s Bob Hope would later convince him to shorten so it would fit better on markees to Tony Bennett.

That name can still be found in lights as Bennett is marking his 85th birthday with five concert dates scheduled for August, the release of a new CD set for September (which includes a duet with the late Amy Winehouse) and a Cleveland concert planned for Playhouse Square October 29.

“When you do something with great joy like I do there’s a phrase, it’s called stealing the money,” Bennett once told me when I asked him about retirement. “If it isn’t athletic, if you’re just using your head and your heart and your mind and your hands, I think you should never retire... I think good performers don’t dare stop, you just keep going.”

The thing I love most about those words is that Bennett said them to me 20 years ago at a time when the curtain was only just starting to go up on the second act of his career.

I first met Tony Bennett in February of 1991, not long after I started working for a television station in Atlantic City, N.J. and I went to Trump’s Castle to see Bennett in concert for the first time.

We were riding down in an elevator when it stops, the doors open up and who walks in but Tony himself. No entourage, escort or bodyguard -- just Tony in his tux, a man going to work.

I was with a former teacher of mine from college, Stu Bykofsky, who is a columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News. We said hello, introduced ourselves and Stu told him that it had already been arranged for us to come backstage to speak with him after the show for his column. He said by all means come back and he told us to enjoy the show.

That was very easy to do; Tony wowed the audience and me. Afterwards we went backstage, which in the Castle was the kitchen of the grand ballroom, and there was Tony and Ralph Sharon -- his longtime pianist -- going over the show.

When he saw us, Tony came over and was a gracious host, introducing us to his girlfriend (now wife) Susan Crow. We stood there talking for a good while about everything from his early memories of playing in Atlantic City and Wildwood to his take on the music of the day, to who were his favorite singers (Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, for what it’s worth).

I told him that I had a picture of Sinatra on my desk but after the performance I just witnessed, it’s about to be replaced.

He said, “Before you replace it, I should tell you that I have a picture of Frank Sinatra on my desk.”

After a while, Tony asked me, “So John, you’re in TV?”

I said yes, I’m the 11 p.m. anchor with the local NBC affiliate.

He said, “Maybe we can do a show together some day.”

I was floored and I told him it would be an honor. He told me to give him a call next time he’s in town.

Long story short, when I saw he was coming back I called over and said Tony asked me to call -- and the wheels were set in motion for what would turn out to be a half-hour special with just the two of us looking back over his then 40 years in show business.

Bennett is an accomplished artist and when it came time for the taping, we set it up in a room surrounded by his paintings. When Tony walked in, what struck me was he was once again just strolling in by himself, no entourage, publicist, bodyguard or assistant.

We would tape the show in October and it would air Super Bowl Sunday in January of 1992. I’ve been very fortunate in this business and had the opportunity to some really cool things but that special with the two of us remains one of my most cherished memories.

I would have the opportunity to interview Tony Bennett several times during the four years I spent in Atlantic City and took in his show every time he came to town. (Tony jumped from Trump Castle to Caesars to the Tropicana to Resorts in the four years I worked there which was great because the new casino was always willing to promote the fact they had Tony and set up an interview for me).

The great perk was the interviews would usually take place after Bennett would do his sound checks for his concert, so I’d show up early and get a little mini concert as he’d sometimes go through a full song or two for us.

He was even kind enough to do a special greeting for me for my parents 40th wedding anniversary, which as you can imagine was a big hit.

When I first met Tony, his career was just beginning its resurgence and by the time I left Atlantic City four years later, he was back on top coming off back to back Grammy’s for “Perfectly Frank” and “Steppin’ Out,” and he had just taped his MTV Unplugged special that was set to air and would eventually win him another Grammy.

He was more in demand than ever, yet even still he remained to me that same genuine down to earth person that I met a few years earlier -- just that guy on the elevator going to work.

Here is a raw look at most of “Tony Bennett; A Celebration of 40 Years.” It includes songs, Sunnyside of the Street, When do the Bells Ring for Me, Stranger in Paradise and I Left My Heart in San Francisco.

Mobile users: Go to this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbwM_Zi4tcA

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