CLEVELAND — “The good ones go right up to the end,” Tony Bennett told me in 1991 when I asked if the then-65-year-old had any plans to slow down or retire. Decades later, the nonagenarian has proven that to be likely the most ill-timed question of my career.
“If you love what you do there’s a phrase,” he would say. "It’s called stealing the money!”
On Monday, Bennett’s family revealed in an interview with AARP that the 94-year-old singer has been quietly battling Alzheimer’s Disease since 2016. He still continued to perform and record, engagements that served as a therapy against the neurodegenerative disease.
Bennett was born August 3, 1926, as Anthony Dominick Benedetto, a name Bob Hope would later convince him was too long for the marquee and shortened it to Tony Bennett.
It was 30 years ago this month, February of 1991, when I first met Tony Bennett in Atlantic City where I had just started work as the 11 o’clock anchor of a small station there. I was with a teacher of mine from college, Stu Bykofsky, who was a columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News. Being new to town he invited me to tag along for the show and his interview with Bennett afterward.
Turns out we wouldn’t have to wait, as we headed down to the showroom our elevator stops, the doors open up and who is standing there but Tony Bennett himself. There he was no entourage or escort, just Tony in his tux, a man going to work.
We introduced ourselves to him and told him that we’d be coming backstage to speak with him after the show. 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. Afterward, we went backstage, which in Trump Castle (now the Golden Nugget) was essentially the kitchen of the grand ballroom and there we found Tony and his longtime pianist Ralph Sharon going over the show.
When he saw us Tony came over and was immediately the gracious host, introducing us to his girlfriend (now wife) Susan Crow. Stu asked him a couple of questions for his column then we just stood around talking about everything from Tony’s days as a young entertainer performing in Wildwood and Atlantic City to music today, to who were his favorite singers, Frank Sinatra of course leading the list.
Along those lines, I told him that I had a picture of Frank Sinatra on my desk but after the performance, I just witnessed it was about to be replaced. He said, “oh thank you but 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," and he said “maybe we can do a show together someday.”
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.
I remember thinking is this for real? I’d find out a few months later when I saw Tony was coming back into town. I called over to the public relations folks and said “Tony told me to call him” and we set in motion the plans for a half-hour special, just Tony Bennett and me looking back on his then 40 years in show business.
When it came time for the taping of the show, we did it in a room surrounded by Tony’s artwork. As Tony walked in what struck me was once again he just strolled in by himself, no entourage, publicist, bodyguard, or assistant. We taped the show and after I told him I’d be going to his casino performance the next night, and he told me to make sure I come backstage. I did and we talked some more.
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 promote the fact they had Tony and set up an interview for me.)
The last time we got together was in April of 1994, two weeks before I left to begin a new job in Scranton, PA. What I enjoyed about this particular interview is we had to wait for Tony to do his sound check before we could talk to him. We asked if we get some footage? He said hold on I’ll take care of you. Once they got the sound system right he asked if we were ready and he proceeded to sing “A Foggy Day in London Town” just for my cameraman and me, an audience of two. It was awesome.
He told me once he didn’t care if he had to be a singing waiter his whole life, he was going to sing every day and he had no plans on ever slowing down.
“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,” Bennett told me.
“I think Bob Hope and George Burns and all of the great ones like Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire they went right to the end, they just kept swinging right through it,” he said. “I think great performers don’t dare stop we just keep going.”
And so there is solace to know that Bennett is still singing in his Manhattan apartment, rehearsing twice a week, the AARP article revealed, not daring to stop and keeping on going just like the guy that I met a few years earlier — the one on the elevator going to work.