Commentary: Tony Bennett

By Louis A. Zona

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The recent news that Tony Bennett is suffering from Alzheimer’s has touched all of us who are fans of this great entertainer.

Bennett has been singing the Great American Songbook to adoring legions of fans for generations. Frank Sinatra once described Tony Bennett as the best in the business. Bob Hope advised him to shorten his name from Anthony Benedetto to Tony Bennett. And those of us familiar with his art know that he signs his paintings Bennett/Benedetto.

Youngstown’s Butler Institute of American Art has played a significant role in Bennett’s career as a visual artist. The Butler hosted his very first museum exhibition. He in turn honored The Butler by generously donating his most celebrated painting, a still life titled “Homage to Hockney,” which is proudly displayed on the second floor gallery of The Butler.

And while he might be classified as a celebrity artist, he is a superb painter whose landscapes of Tuscany clearly show him as a most talented, quite serious, painter.

Bennett’s association with The Butler led to my personal friendship with him that has lasted for more than a dozen years. When he exhibited his work in a Florida gallery, he asked that I be in attendance to assist him.

I was honored to do so.

One wonderful memory was interviewing him in his New York apartment, which was taped by my nephew, videographer Nick Rich. That interview can still be viewed on the web and remains one of his far-reaching interviews, revealing much about his thoughts on art and artists.

One of Tony Bennett’s great friends was the nationally known portrait painter Everett Raymond Kinstler. They had been high school classmates growing up in New York City.

One of my fondest memories is viewing an exhibition of the paintings of Tony’s favorite artist, John Singer Sargent, with Tony and Ray Kinstler (whom Bennett always referred to as Everett).

After viewing the exhibition at a Madison Avenue gallery, Tony showed me his favorite stained glass window in a nearby church. After pointing out favorite sections of the window, Tony and I walked together down Madison toward the heart of the city with most people recognizing him but leaving him alone out of respect. After a 20-minute walk, he said goodbye and hopped into a cab. What I had not realized was that about 50 people had been following him and quickly dispersed when he got into the cab.

I was greatly honored when friends Mr. and Mrs. Draime invited Tony to appear at a reception in their gardens honoring me for my 20th year at The Butler. Tony came with his musical group who performed for everyone but, sadly, a sore throat prevented him from singing. Nevertheless, the crowd enjoyed Tony’s words and the music of the Ralph Sharon Quartet who were Tony’s long-time backup performers.

At one of Tony Bennett’s appearances in Pittsburgh, he surprised me by acknowledging me from the stage and singing the Duke Ellington classic “Mood Indigo” in my honor. Had I died and gone to heaven? At that moment, I thought so.

In Tony Bennett’s hometown of Astoria, New York, is a brand-new high school for the study of the arts, which Bennett created. I was invited to attend the opening of the school that Tony named The Frank Sinatra School for the Arts. It says a lot about Tony Bennett that he would place his friend Frank Sinatra’s name on the building instead of his own.

Several months later we arranged to have a busload of Youngstown and Warren people tour the school with Tony. Our Butler bus group loved the whole experience.

One of the truly wonderful Tony Bennett experiences was being in the recording studio in Astoria.

One day, Tony was recording with K.D. Lang. No one else was in the studio except Danny Bennett, Tony‘s son, two engineers and one other guest. It was amazing to watch and listen to Tony interacting with K.D. as they recorded “La Vie en Rose” and other beautiful melodies.

When The Cleveland Institute of Music honored Tony Bennett with an honorary doctor of music, I was invited to the event and privileged to sit in the front row with his wife, Susan.

On Tony’s 80th birthday, a party was held in Central Park, which I was honored to attend. On another occasion, Tony sang at a fundraiser in Radio City Music Hall followed by an amazing dinner.

One of the highlights was an auction of several Tony Bennett paintings. The auctioneer for the evening was former President Bill Clinton, who got the most from that crowd of celebrities and prominent New Yorkers. The cause was The Frank Sinatra School.

When my dear brother, Jerry, died, Tony called me to express his sympathy. It was a touching phone call and one I have always remembered.

To learn of Tony’s illness has been difficult for all of us. Sadly, it is a disease that strikes far too many families.

Maybe Tony’s affliction will one day lead to a cure. One thing is for sure: Seeing this great man as a friend has made my life so much richer. And how wonderful that Youngstown’s Butler Institute in turn was able to add some joy to his life as well.