The Best of Both Worlds: You've Heard of Tony Bennett, the International Singing Phenomenon Who Has Charmed Audiences for Six Decades, but Have You Met Anthony Benedetto, Rising Star of the Art World?

By Miller, Holly | The Saturday Evening Post, March-April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Best of Both Worlds: You've Heard of Tony Bennett, the International Singing Phenomenon Who Has Charmed Audiences for Six Decades, but Have You Met Anthony Benedetto, Rising Star of the Art World?


Miller, Holly, The Saturday Evening Post


Tony Bennett credits the late Duke Ellington with giving him a piece of advice that has kept him on the pop charts for 60 years. Ellington, who turned down an art scholarship to the prestigious Pratt Institute in favor of a career in jazz, encouraged Bennett to pursue not one but two creative outlets. His rationale was simple: If Bennett grew restless with music, he could direct his energy to his second area of creativity. One passion would refresh him for the other. "Do two things" was Ellington's prescription for avoiding burnout.

"I've always had a passion to paint and to sing," says Bennett, "so I started doing both in a more disciplined way. I would paint, and as soon as I felt tired, I would study my music." Switching back and forth gave him just the nudge he needed. "It was still the creative process, but in a different medium. By doing the two, I never felt the urge to 'get away from it all.' It was as if I was on a perpetual vacation."

It still works. At age 81, Bennett has the same enthusiasm for his art and music as when he was a kid drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalks of Brooklyn or, later, earning $15 a week as a singing waiter. Although music is the better known of his talents--he recently added two Grammys to his crowded collection of hardware--his art is gaining visibility and value. His painting of the American flag raised $150,000 for Hurricane Katrina relief, and a watercolor still-life added $65,000 to the U.N.'s fund to reduce deadly landmines around the globe.

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The music-and-art juggling act shows no signs of slowing down. Between his concert bookings and recording sessions, Bennett makes annual visits to his family's native Italy. "I go there to paint," he explains. "I see the same landscape that Michelangelo and Leonardo used to look at." After earning praise in two highly competitive professions, is he ever tempted to clock out, kick back, and relax? The Post recently caught up with the gifted artist to talk about his dual careers and see if retirement is on the drawing board.

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Q: When you were getting started in the music business, Bob Hope convinced you to change your name to Tony Bennett. Now, as a painter, you've returned to your birth name, Anthony Benedetto. Why the switch?

It's funny how it happened. I was in Britain several years ago, looking at some Renoir paintings in the window of a very distinguished gallery. A man came up next to me, recognized me, and asked me if I liked art. We started talking about painting--he was an artist, too--and somehow the conversation turned to my name. He asked me what my real name is. I told him, "Benedetto." He suggested that when I paint, I should sign my work "Benedetto," and when I sing, I should use the name "Tony Bennett." I thought about it and decided I liked the idea because it was a way of separating the two careers.

Q: The Benedetto family has always been very creative--your father and brother were talented opera singers. How did your parents encourage creativity in their kids?

They did it in unintentional ways. We grew up in the Great Depression, and many times we questioned whether there would be food on the table. But as Italian-Americans we had a great optimistic spirit. I remember that my aunts, uncles and cousins would come over on Sundays and make a circle around my brother, sister and myself. Someone would bring out a guitar or mandolin, and we kids would entertain the group. We couldn't wait until Sunday, and we always tried to come up with something different. We were such a tight little community; we all depended on one another. My relatives encouraged us by saying things like, "You're doing good!" "You're going to be fine!" That created the ham in me, and to this day, I love entertaining people.

Q: What about your art? Who helped cultivate that talent?

We lived in the projects in Astoria [Queens], and there was a wonderful man, full of spirit and life, who lived in a nearby apartment with his wife. …

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