Tony Bennett still going strong as he celebrates his 90th Birthday Wednesday

Posted at 6:36 AM, Aug 03, 2016

There are no stupid questions we're often told in journalism, still one comes to mind for me, asked 25 years ago of a then 65 year old Tony Bennett. Any plans to retire?

August 3rd, marks the 90th Birthday of Anthony Dominick Benedetto, a name Bob Hope would later convince him was too long for the markee and shortened to Tony Bennett. Tony is marking his birthday with two shows next week and others booked through the fall.

My connection to Tony Bennett dates back a quarter century to February of  1991.

A few months after I started work at WMGM-TV in Atlantic City,  I got a call from Stu Bykofsky a columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News and my first Journalism teacher at Temple University.  

Stu and his wife were coming down to A.C. to spend the weekend at Trump Castle (now Golden Nugget) and take in a few shows.  Being still relatively new to the town he invited me to join them.

We met for dinner then headed up to one of the showrooms to see a Revue show they had featuring singer Len Barry (“Bristol Stomp”   and “1,2,3 oh that’s how elementary…”)  then we made our way to the Crystal Ballroom  where we were to see Tony Bennett.

I was a huge Frank Sinatra fan and a growing Tony Bennett fan so I was excited about not only seeing him for the first time but getting the chance to meet him, which Trump P.R. guru Bob Arrow had arranged for us after the show.

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.  Afterwards we went backstage and there’s Tony and Ralph Sharon going over the show . When he saw us Tony came over and was a 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, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were his answers.)

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’s 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 some day.”  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 Bob Arrow who was with us that night 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 show the next night he told me to make sure I come back stage.   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 days before I went up to Scranton for my job interview at WNEP. 

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. 

When I first met Tony his career was just beginning its resurgence by this time he was back on top coming off back to back Grammy’s for “Perfectly Frank” and “Steppin’ Out”, and he had just taped his MTV Unplugged special that was set to air.  He was more in demand than ever yet even still he remained to me that same genuine down to earth person that I met a few years earlier,  just that guy on the elevator going to work.

Here is the special we taped October 11, 1991.