Dishing dirt sells. That’s the message from the successful memoirs by rockers Keith Richards, Steven Tyler, and so many other bad boys. Now along comes a new book by Tony Bennett, which charts a completely different path. It is rosy and upbeat with rarely a negative word said about anyone.
Where Richards and Tyler buried their naysayers with vitriol, Bennett lays on the kindness. To give him credit, he has earned his happiness. He is 86, has performed for 11 presidents, won 17 Grammys, and achieved a staggering number of firsts — from being the first pop act to play Carnegie Hall to the first white artist to sing with Count Basie’s band.
But in a life this long and full of achievement, how is it possible to continually be Mr. Nice Guy? Bennett praises nearly everyone he has worked with, saving special kudos for Frank Sinatra (who, in Life magazine, once called Bennett his favorite singer), Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Judy Garland. Bennett also gushes over younger artists like the late Amy Winehouse (with whom he did a memorable duet) and Lady Gaga, who he predicts could become “the next Picasso of music.”
LIFE IS A GIFT: The Zen of Bennett
The book is made up of a series of short anecdotal chapters, each of which ends with a few karmic lessons (referred to as “The Zen of Bennett’’) drawn from each yarn. Bennett offers us his views on love, beauty, honesty, and often includes such trenchant bits of advice as “[C]ount your blessings every day’’ and “Don’t let the naysayers get you down.’’ Woven throughout are the singer’s own playful paintings of the many artists he has admired.
The chapters are not without their pleasures. It’s fun to read about going to the racetrack with Cary Grant — who happened to own the establishment — and about Fred Astaire, who finds himself leaving parties early, pooped from too many women asking him to dance.
The chapters are not without their pleasures. . . . But the unrelenting positiveness gets tiresome.
But the unrelenting positiveness gets tiresome. Besides largely refusing to say anything bad about anyone, Bennett tends to shy away from unpleasantness generally.
Bennett, who grew up in an Italian immigrant family in Queens, dwells proudly on his impressive work ethic. He boasts of building his career by doing three shows a night at New York’s Copacabana club and doing seven daily shows at the Paramount. But he refuses to take us inside the experience, the bad as well as the good.
Likewise he gives little ink to his short-lived drug use and occasional bouts with depression.
There are really only a few places where he shares outright disapproval. For instance, he slams record labels for being too greedy (Bennett had problems with Columbia Records executives Mitch Miller and Clive Davis, who wanted him to sing more trendy commercial songs).
He reserves most of his ire for incidents of racism. He relates one incident from his time in the Army in World War II in which he got busted from corporal to private for bringing a black serviceman into a segregated mess hall for Thanksgiving.
The most powerful part of the book is when Bennett, at the request of Harry Belafonte, gets involved in the 1960s civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery with fellow artists Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter, Paul and Mary. It is wrenching to read about the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of a white volunteer from Detroit who was supposed to drive Bennett to the airport.
Perhaps the sunniest and most ardent Bennett fans will be completely happy with this book, but just about everyone else will wish he delved deeper, revealed more overall. Life may be a gift, but this memoir is something less.
Steve Morse, a former Boston Globe staff music writer, teaches an online course at Berklee College of Music and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.