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Tony Bennett – a Manhattan trip that was absolutely all it was cracked up to be

31 Mar 2021

Sad news announced by Tony Bennett’s family that he has been suffering from Alzheimers these past four years (he’s 94). A prompt to recount the time I interviewed him, during my short stint at NME  when he was a mere 72. When I was a regular journo for the weeklies, friends would marvel at what they saw at the glamour of my job and generally I’d have to disabuse them, tell them it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Interviewing Tony Bennett in New York in a sunny, 20 degrees celsius November 1998 was all it was cracked up to be.

Prior to interviewing him, we saw him play a gig at Radio City, a vast, sweeping, art deco shrine, for which Bennett delivering the likes of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was, in 1998, practically the only available appropriate option left. Dean Martin had died three years earlier, Sinatra earlier that year. He felt like the last man. It was blue, immaculate velvet. We were introduced backstage afterwards and he was as gracious as I expected. He surprised me by complimenting me on a piece he’d read by me on Canadian avant-electronic artists Skinny Puppy back in 1987 in Melody Maker. (He didn’t surprise me by complimenting me on a piece hed read by me on Canadian avant-electronic artists Skinny Puppy back in 1987 in Melody Maker. But you can only have nearly everything).

The next day, we did the interview over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Teodora, a favourite of his, apparently. White tablecloths. I thought it wise not to suggest alternatives from my guidebook. I get a touch keyed up before interviews, and during, and can normally only digest a water biscuit at most. But this food, and the epiphany that what passed for Italian food in UK restaurants might as well have come out of tin cans, besotted me. It was a great interview, Bennett reminiscing about his old pals, recalling his days joining the civil rights marchers from Selma to Montgomery, his temporary decline into coke addiction in the 1970s, but I confess I was a touch distracted by the antipasti and the heavenly, creamy pasta that followed. My tape recording revealed me moaning quasi-sexually at the bill of fare while urging Tony to go on with whatever he was talking about; “It’s all right, it’s on tape,” I said. Back then, I wore black suits and was voluntarily bald, my head shaven. As fellow diners gawped I stared them in the eye, assuming the role of personal security, as if to say, “Mr Bennett doesn’t want to be bothered right now.”

We then went back to his apartment in Trump Towers. Again, he was stopped by star-struck passers by. I’ve only once before been a party to this phenomenon and that was with another Tony – Tony Blackburn. With his apartment’s panoramic, timeless view of Central Park, and period decor and furnishing, only a state-of-the-art 90s phone in the living room spoiled the illusion that you were in a time capsule of the year 1956. We (press officer, photographer) got to ride around with him in his limo for a while, which he’d got for the day and was determined to make use of including one admittedly dull 30 minute stop while he went to the opticians, us boys sitting in the back of the car like 70s kids, fidgeting, unable even to mess with the radio dial.

Keep on keeping on, Mr B.