Tony Bennett: Before the Good Life

Lousy gigs, mob ties & other tales: an excerpt from David Evanier's new bio

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Tony Bennett at L.A.'s Capitol Studios, February 2011
By Josh Cheuse
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Tony Bennett with his mother in 1945. Photo courtesy of Wiley
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Tony Bennett and fans, 1947. Photo courtesy of Wiley

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Tony Bennett’s latest album, Duets II (Columbia), moved 179,000 units in its first week, catapulting it to the top of the Billboard albums chart and making the 85-year-old artist the oldest performer in history to receive that honor. It was his first No. 1 LP, a credit to the project’s all-star assemblage of collaborators—Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse, in her last recording appearance, among them—and to the main attraction’s inimitable style, gracious charm and cross-generational appeal.
But Bennett’s status as America’s greatest living crooner has been hard-earned. In this excerpt from the new biography All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett (Wiley), author David Evanier recounts the singer’s formative years, from the discouraging days following his military service through Mafia support and a career-changing encounter with Bob Hope.

In his notes for the beautiful song called “I Was Lost, I Was Drifting,” which was included in his autobiographical Astoria album, Tony recalled its context: “I always relate the song to a time when I was returning from World War II. … It was a time of soul-searching, and the task to become a civilian once again was not easy. Where to start, where to go. I was truly adrift.”

He was now certain he would make singing his career, and his mother supported his decision. “I know that when he came home from the service,” Mary Chiappa [Bennett’s elder sister] would remember, “my mother felt she would have to help him. I remember her saying to me that if this is what he wanted, instead of sending him to school to pursue a formal education, this was just going to be in place of what parents normally do for their children.

“I remember her leaving money on the dresser for him for the day, because every morning he would go into New York, knock on people’s doors, that kind of thing, for his first big break. And he would not take most of the money. He would take 20 cents, because she was a widow and she was working; he felt really badly about taking the money. He would use five cents for the subway to go and five cents to come back. The reaction of the whole family was that if this was what he wanted, we were all going to support it, and we all did. My brother John and I formed his first fan club, answered fan mail and that kind of thing.”

He had a foundation to build on. He had immersed himself in greatness from a very early age, and he knew it instantly when he encountered it. As author Robert Sullivan wrote, “He had lived in the worlds of music and art for a good while even by 1945. He could hear that Art Tatum was the greatest of all jazz pianists, and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were among the foremost musical titans of all time.”

He lived at home and looked for work. And always people were drawn to him—important, key people, those whose talents he admired. He took the 20 cents from the dollar his mother left for him every day and went into Manhattan, looking for a job and haunting the jazz clubs lining 52nd Street. He tried to spend 10 cents instead of 20; he knew how much his mother had sacrificed working as a seamstress to give him the money. He saw most of the greatest jazz musicians in the world up close; he hung around all night, and sometimes he was allowed to sing. He sang nights for a few dollars at grungy local Astoria clubs. He also polished his performing and communication skills by performing at benefits for army and navy hospitals, learning what songs the soldiers and sailors would want to hear.

He became very close to Fred Katz and his brother Abe when he returned from the war. Tony had met Fred when the 255th Regiment Band was reformed in Germany after the war. Tony was the singer and Fred was the pianist. Fred also played the cello and later became a well-known musician in the jazz scene in Manhattan. Abe, first trumpet at the Metropolitan Opera, taught Tony how to breathe.

Tony’s best friend was Jack Wilson, a poet and aspiring songwriter, whose family lived next to Tony’s in the Metropolitan Apartments, and they hung out with future screenwriter and director Abby Mann. Both boys wanted to make it in the music business. They listened to big-band records and scat-sang the solos on street corners of Astoria, sometimes receiving dimes from onlookers. Tony taught Jack about painting and drawing, and Jack instructed Tony in poetry.

The boys went to see Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Bob Hope and Red Skelton. They traveled to Harlem to the Apollo and Savoy theaters to see Billie Holiday, Count Basie and church choirs. Jack loved bridges and spoke about them as routes to the world beyond. The two dreamers watched the barges and ships sail by in the river and imagined traveling across the seas once they became successful.

It was Jack Wilson who introduced Tony to Mann. The two aspiring artists would meet on Central Park South and imagine how wonderful it would feel to dwell in one of the elegant buildings beside the park. (Tony lives in one of those buildings today and has rarely strayed from the Central Park area and milieu.) Wilson became Tony’s first manager when he began to sing in small clubs.

According to writer Joe Mosbrook, Cleveland guitarist Fred Sharp and his wife, Iris, were living in Astoria at the time and saw Bennett—then called Joe Bari—sing at the Shangri-la at Queens Plaza under the El. They were impressed with his voice and invited him to have a drink at their table. Tony told them that he had written a song called “Satan Wears a Satin Gown” and was looking for a well-known singer to perform it. Sharp told him that he and his wife were friends with Frankie Laine, who was then appearing at the Paramount Theater. Sharp suggested that Tony bring his song to Laine. Bennett went backstage and sang his song for Laine. In his autobiography, That Lucky Old Son, Laine recalled listening to Tony and responding, “What do you need me for? You sing great!” Laine recorded the song, and Fred Sharp and his wife became friends with Bennett, playing and singing together a few times.

Childhood friend Bobby Margillo remembers Tony from those years. “He was Joe Bari then,” Margillo told me. “He came from a very, very poor family. There was like a trestle bridge that went from Long Island to the Bronx, and he lived in that area. He was singing in all the joints in Astoria. I worked together with him; I was a singing waiter at the Nestle Inn, a Mafia joint, underneath the Hell Gate Bridge. This Nestle place was just a joint; it wasn’t a high-class place. When the train came over, the whole damn place used to shake. About every two hours. He had to stop singing because you couldn’t hear anything. Tony was 19. He was getting $37.50 for singing Friday and Saturday nights. He always sang one song without the microphone, just as he does today. Oh, what a voice. He had an old tin microphone.

“Tony always had a maroon jacket and a black pair of pants. That’s all he ever had. He was so bashful and quiet. Onstage he just loved to sing. He’s not much of a talker, you know. He was just the opposite of Sinatra as far as personality—very mild. Four of us—Rosie the hatcheck girl, another guy, me and Tony—used to imitate the Ink Spots. This Rosie used to give Tony a goose every time he came to the high note [to make his voice higher]. We talk about that when we see each other after all these years. He was very bashful with women, you know. His whole life was singing.

“I said to him, ‘We’ll write a letter to Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show.’ So we got a letter together and we sent it. About a week later, somebody got shot in the Nestle Inn and they closed it down. I didn’t see him for about six months. One day I turned on the TV and watched Talent Scouts. It comes down to the last contender—and it was Joe Bari. That’s when they had the clapometer. He got 102. But there was one more contestant. She sang and she got 104. Rosemary Clooney.

“When we talk now I say, ‘Do you realize you sang before kings and queens?’ He started laughing. Very shy laugh. Tony never forgot me. That man … it’s unbelievable. Only in America could that be done. Rags to riches. I call him the Astoria Kid. He likes that. He loves Astoria. Put Astoria in your title; he’d appreciate it.”

There were many rejections, and for years he couldn’t find real work as a singer. His first real break was that night at the Shangri-la, the time Fred and Iris Sharp heard him sing. The trombonist Tyree Glenn heard him singing at the bar and invited him to come up and sing with the band. “He got me up on the stage,” Bennett told the BBC, “and I sang. I had no idea he was one of Louis Armstrong’s guys and played with Duke Ellington and everything. He’s part of the history of jazz.” Tony was hired, and the job lasted until Glenn joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Then Tony worked wherever he could, at the Venice Gardens in Astoria, as a singing waiter at the Red Door and the Pheasant Tavern, all in Astoria. (Sinatra had been a singing waiter a few years before at the Rustic Cabin in New Jersey.)

The big time seemed distant and unrealizable, but as always, he kept plugging. Tony knew that in addition to honing his craft in clubs, he needed to study music and learn how to develop his voice. “I enjoyed that experience [of singing over Armed Forces radio] so much that I said I’m going to stay in show business, or try to, when I come back,” he told the BBC. “Well, as Studs Terkel from Chicago said, that was the good war. And as we came back, they gave us the best teachers. To this day I can’t believe what a wonderful education was afforded me as a result of being a GI and coming back. They made sure that everybody was able to make up for the loss of education. And they gave us the American Theater Wing, which became such a good school that it became the Actors Studio.” It was at the school that Tony studied the Stanislavsky method of acting.

Tony studied with Pietro D’Andrea, who taught him bel canto singing, and with Mimi Spear, also a bel canto teacher and vocal coach for popular songs whose studio was right on 52nd Street, the center of the jazz world. As he sang in her studio, he looked down at the awnings from her brownstone, at the names of all of the musicians playing on the street: Tatum, Basie, Shearing and Getz. She had coached Helen O’Connell and Peggy Lee. He told Mick Brown of the London Daily Telegraph that Spear gave him sound advice: “She advised him not to imitate other singers ‘because you’ll just be one of the chorus,’ but instead to listen carefully to the jazz musicians. … Bennett strove to emulate the ‘beautiful honey sound’ of the sax player Stan Getz and the chopped phrases of the pianist Art Tatum.”

He applied the techniques he learned at the American Theater Wing and from Spear to his singing. Like an actor, he thought autobiographically as he sang, as if the lyrics described an experience he had gone through. He described what the dance-band era had been like to Mick Brown as a period “when a singer was regarded as just another instrument in the orchestra, their vocal style determined by whichever dance step the band happened to be playing.” “So if they were playing a foxtrot,” Bennett said, “a singer would take a long line…” He snapped his fingers and began to sing, dragging out the syllables. “There was a mooooooon out in spaaaaace, but a cloud drifted over its faaaace... But Art Tatum would change the tempos, chop it up and I liked that. You couldn’t take a long line the way Tatum did it. You’d have to find songs that lent themselves to that style. And what that did was make you tell stories and dramatize songs.”

And then there was Stan Getz. “Getz had this kind of honey sound which was wonderful,” Tony told Joanne Kaufman of the Wall Street Journal, “so I started imitating that sound with my voice.”

He was criticized by other musicians for singing too dramatically, for being a “mad singer.” Singing dramatically was proving a hindrance to getting hired; Bennett was not passing any auditions. In addition to his singing-waiter jobs, he worked as an elevator operator at the Park Sheraton Hotel (but couldn’t get the knack of stopping evenly at a floor; he stopped either above or below it), copy boy for the Associated Press and grocery store clerk.

As he developed his craft and studied Tatum, Basie, Charlie Parker and the early beboppers, singing for him came to mean improvisation, surprise and doing the unexpected, as well as nuance and feeling. He was literally stunned when he first heard Parker play; he had never heard anything like it. He ran out of the club and threw up on the street.

He hung around 52nd Street but never officially sang on any stage there. But he witnessed the greatest artists, including Billie Holiday, and was deeply impacted by them. “Not because she was ‘singing jazz,’” he said. “She was singing Billie. She was singing her life.” And there were many who were recognizing his potential. Long afterward, the composer Alec Wilder reminded Tony how they had met. Wilder would always hide in the closet when Tony was studying with Mimi Spear. Many others were paying attention, too. Pianist Barbara Carroll invited Tony to sing with her at La Cava on 52nd Street. He sang for free drinks and experience. Comics Milton Berle and Jan Murray had heard him sing and arranged for Tony to perform once at the famous nightclub Leon and Eddie’s so that agents could come in and discover him.

He kept on singing. He didn’t get paid, but he performed at the Chantilly in Greenwich Village and all over Queens and Manhattan. During the day Tony hung out with the other aspiring singers and comics in the Broadway area around 49th and 50th streets, at the B-G Bottomless Coffee, Hanson’s drugstore, Hector’s Cafeteria and Charlie’s Tavern, and near the 47th Street Horn and Hardart Automat, the RKO Palace, Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant and the Colony Record Shop. “I used to see Tony at Hanson’s drugstore,” composer Johnny Mandel told me. “Tony was just a young, wide-eyed guy who was just starting out. But he was always the same person, just always great. He’s the same guy you always see. And he always wanted to do things that were interesting, like good music. He used to hang with the musicians. He liked musicians. He wasn’t interested in the money part of it at all.”

Jack Wilson was Tony’s manager at this point, and the boys hung out with Freddy Katz a lot. Freddy was working as a pianist and an accompanist and got a big break when he was hired by Lena Horne. Katz also was playing piano for Vic Damone. According to Damone’s autobiography, Singing Was the Easy Part, Damone’s manager was Ray Muscarella, who also would work with another important singer, Jimmy Roselli. Muscarella was a show business promoter connected to wiseguys, including “Buckalo,” whose real name was Anthony Ferra. Ferra ran the East Harlem Mafiosi and at one point was also Roselli’s manager.

“Tony Tamburello [Bennett’s vocal coach and closest friend] told me,” Derek Boulton recalled, “that Tony B. was started by the Capone family, Lou Capone. Bennett never told me that himself at all.” Tony dropped Jack Wilson as his manager when Muscarella auditioned Tony in late 1948 and became his manager, which included giving him financial backing. Tony’s friendship with Wilson was ruptured as a result. Wilson spoke to Tony privately and said, “You realize, don’t you, what we’re talking about here? You’re making the wrong move.” To make Tony get the point, Jack slapped him hard in the face. Tony tried to explain to him that he’d been struggling for so long, surviving on 10 cents a day, that he couldn’t turn Muscarella away.

“So Ray Muscarella became Tony’s manager,” Boulton, who managed Tony from 1970 through 1974, recalled. “But Muscarella was a wine salesman. In other words, if you bought the wine, you got Bennett. Look, you had to go through them to get work because they controlled the booze. I remember I was with Tony one day when he got the news that Ray Muscarella was dead. And he jumped in the air with joy and hit his head on the ceiling.”

“There have been a lot of what we called ‘dirty money’ singers,” Johnny Mandel told me. “Jerry Vale, Al Martino, Don Cornell. That was what we called them. Tony was one of those. That’s how he started out. But you know, I think that jazz is probably the only American art form, truly, that originated here. And I think that without the ‘big boys,’ without the rackets, jazz would never have had a place to survive or be nurtured, and who knows if jazz, if the Jelly Roll Mortons or the Louis Armstrongs, would have survived. And this is no reflection on Tony. Matter of fact, these guys loved what he did.

“Because it was always the whorehouses in New Orleans,” Mandel continued, “and then it moved up to Chicago and Kansas City, both wide-open towns. And everybody had to work for them. And they liked entertainers and they liked musicians. If you didn’t fuck with them, they wouldn’t fuck with you. As long as you took care of your business and didn’t think about theirs, they didn’t mess with you. Without them, jazz wouldn’t even have had anywhere to develop; there was no place to nurture it. Every big city had their clubs, and they were all run by the wiseguys. They’re the only ones that knew how to run a club and to look the other way at the right time.

“I don’t think jazz would exist, or many other show business arts, for that matter. Cabaret, people like Streisand, when they developed, had to play these places like the Bon Soir. Bette Midler. The people who backed the big musical shows in the ’20s: same thing. All that money came from there. I mean, some of the biggest hoods in the world bankrolled those shows that Fats Waller wrote. And they were better to work for as long as you didn’t fuck with them: Don’t pay any attention to what they were doing and any of the extracurricular stuff. Frank Sinatra would get really upset with somebody slamming the ‘boys.’ Those are the only guys who knew his name when he was really dying in the early ’50s. They helped him when no one else would. He didn’t forget it. And he was right.

“And they loved the music! You can’t get that from a corporate person. They’re cold fish usually. They have a cash register in their heads. Look at Jimmy Roselli: They cried when he sang. They’d shoot you, but they’d cry. Even if they shot him, they’d mourn over him. I just don’t enjoy people with no blood in their veins.”

“Tony wasn’t cut out for the Mafia,” Bobby Margillo told me. “He was brought up to be responsible and shy.” It would be manifestly unfair to criticize Tony Bennett for any dealings he had with the Mafia. Although he wanted nothing to do with them, they were simply impossible to ignore or escape. When he had his chance later to get away from them, he took it, and paid massively for the opportunity. (Even then, they kept trying.) But when he was starting up, he would have been turned away at the opening gate if he had fought them. He was constitutionally unsuited for them; he had a sensitive, artistic and contemplative nature even as he was ferociously ambitious and tenacious about his music.

The issue of the Mafia has always rankled Bennett because he knows it defiles and distorts the image of the Italian American, exaggerates the small criminal element within the community, and encourages a stereotype that has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche. As far back as the late 1800s, historian Richard Gambino writes in Blood of My Blood, Americans were debating “whether Italian Americans were somehow all disposed to criminality by their genetic endowment or cultural inheritance.” Gambino has noted that the stereotype of Italians as violent, cunning and criminal “grates against every nerve ending in the Italian-American ego, which desires respect and honor. Instead, not only are they ignored and ridiculed, but they are also held in contempt.”

Of course Italians were engaged in organized crime, but their number was comparatively small. As Martin Scorsese put it to Clint Eastwood, “The reason I used [Tony’s] ‘Rags to Riches’ as the opening for Goodfellas was instant memory of where I came from and who I knew. I just made a picture about people I knew growing up around me. It didn’t mean that everyone was like that. I was aware of that power around me. But I was more aware of the Italian-American who was, like my mother and father, going to the garment district every day trying to earn a living. They were not involved with these guys. But you lived amongst them.”

The wiseguys controlled the clubs all across the country, from the Copacabana in New York to the 500 Club in Atlantic City, built by Marco Reginelli, a Mafia underboss from Philadelphia, run by his successor, Angelo Bruno, and fronted by Paul (Skinny) D’Amato. The truth was that the mob made you or destroyed you, as Jimmy Roselli would learn when he defied the wiseguys and was banned permanently from performing on the West Coast and his records were taken out of the jukeboxes.

Muscarella hired coaches and arrangers for Tony; a publicist, Sidney Ascher; and a record promoter, Paul Brown; and he arranged for him to appear on the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts radio program. (Bobby Margillo’s letter may have had its effect, as well.) The program, like its predecessors the Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour and the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, was a very early and tame version of the American Idol type of amateur- and rising-talent competitions of today.

Eight months later Jan Murray, who had heard Tony and Rosemary on the Godfrey show and who starred on a television show of his own called Songs for Sale, invited them to appear on his program together. Tony also appeared on the Robert Q. Lewis TV show as Joe Bari. He was still scrambling. He sang club remotes together with future song publisher Eddie Deane on WOR Radio in New York City, recording from the Manhattan Yacht Club, the Knickerbocker Yacht Club and the Riviera Yacht Club.

Tony’s first record, a 78 rpm, was made in April 1949 under the name Joe Bari for a small record company owned by Sy Leslie called Leslie Records. It was produced by George Simon, head jazz writer for Metronome. Bennett recorded an Italian novelty number, “Vieni Qui,” and Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm.” The recording session was held at the New York Decca studios on 57th Street where Crosby, Satchmo, Woody Herman and many other greats had recorded. [Ed. note: Those recordings, long thought lost, are available on Bennett’s new Columbia box set.]

Ray Muscarella was a real help to Tony in those early years. He prevailed upon a lawyer named Jack Spencer to reach out to the composer Hugh Martin. Bennett went over to Martin’s apartment with the demo recording of “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Martin responded by saying, “This kid is another Martha Raye.” (Raye was known in those days as a first-rate jazz singer, not the slapstick comedienne she became.) Martin’s reaction was a promising sign of what was to come. These were still the scuffling days, but there was no doubt about it: Bennett was slowly but surely making his way.

Shortly afterward, Pearl Bailey became one of Tony’s many rescuers over the years. It happened during the time he was working days as an elevator operator. She spotted Tony’s talent at an audition and insisted to management that Tony appear on the bill with her at the Greenwich Village Inn. (It was an all-black cast; Tony would be the only white performer.) She was so convinced of Tony’s potential that when the owner was reluctant to hire him, she said, “Either this boy stays on my show or I’m not playing here.” It was Muscarella who made the initial connection. What followed was a dizzying series of events that moved Tony out of obscurity to almost instant fame.

Bob Hope was in the audience one night to see Bailey. After watching Tony sing, he beckoned to Bennett to come over and talk with him. Hope said, “Come on, kid, you’re coming up to the Paramount and singing with me.” Backstage at the Paramount Theater, Hope asked him what his name was, and Tony replied, “Joe Bari.” Hope said the name was too affected, and asked him what his real name was. Tony told him it was Anthony Dominick Benedetto, and Hope said that it was too long for a marquee. He suggested Americanizing it and changing it to Tony Bennett. Hope said something else that Bennett, the constant student, would remember always. “He said, ‘Show the public you love them,’” Bennett recalled in his interview with Joanne Kaufman.

Within a few hours after that meeting, Bennett was singing at the Paramount, one of the most famous theaters in the world, before a huge audience. (Hope had to introduce him twice; Tony, nervous as hell, did not recognize “Tony Bennett” as his name the first time.)

When Bennett finished singing, Hope said to the audience, “Well, I was getting tired of Crosby anyhow!”

Bennett wired money home soon after and ended his mother’s 17-year stint in the dress factory.

He had virtually debuted at the top.

Excerpted with permission from All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett by David Evanier; Wiley, 2011.

Originally published in December 2011

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