Tony Bennett: ‘I can’t say my wife and I didn’t notice the 40-year age gap when we met’

The singer recalls his parents’ generosity and the most important lesson his mother taught him: to hold out for quality

I am sure I inherited my love of music from my father. He would sit on the stairs and sing opera, show music and pop hits to my brother and me in a fine, clear voice. I like to think you can still hear my father’s voice in me. I know I do. My father was the man everyone in our family, and even in our neighbourhood, sought out for advice because he would listen, treat the other person with respect and try to reply with sympathy. Anyone who was down on their luck or needed a place to stay knew my father would make room for them. When we came down in the morning, we often found a stranger sleeping on our sofa.

A drunk once tried to break into our family grocery store downstairs, but slipped and knocked himself out, tripping over some crates. When the police arrived, they told my father that if he pressed charges the man would end up in jail. My father sighed and asked the failed robber if he had a job. When he shook his head, my dad said: “Well, you have one now. You can work for me, if you want.” And he did. My father didn’t do it out of pity. He truly felt that we were obliged to share our blessings with the less fortunate.

My father probably had rheumatic fever as a child, which damaged his heart. But there were no doctors or hospitals in Calabria, south-west Italy, where he was born in 1895. After he emigrated to Astoria in Queens, New York, his health got steadily worse. One night, when I was 10, my father was rushed to hospital with congestive heart failure and pneumonia, and slipped into a semi-conscious state. Amazingly, he regained consciousness after three days and grew so alert that the doctors told us he could come home the next day. We prepared his homecoming with great elation, only to be told the next morning that he had died overnight. My father was gone at the age of 41. Except, of course, death doesn’t do away with the connection you feel or the influence a parent has on you.

My mother became the sole breadwinner. She worked in a factory by day and sewed dresses at night to support my brother, sister and me. She’d start to sew as soon as she got home. Sometimes she’d catch her thumb under the sewing needle and cry out in pain, but she couldn’t afford to stop. Watching her made me vow to be so good at something I loved that my mother wouldn’t have to work again.

My mother taught me the most important lesson of my life: to hold out for quality. I sat next to her as she worked, just to be near her, and every now and then she’d pick up a new dress to be sewn, feel the cloth, and set it aside, saying she only worked on quality dresses. Our family needed every dime, but she wouldn’t sew a dress that wasn’t up to her standards. Similarly, when a producer or promoter told me I needed to record a song I considered cheap, shoddy or silly, I’d think of my mother and tell them I only worked on quality material.

Bennett with his wife Susan.
Bennett with his wife, Susan

I met my wife, Susan, in the late 1980s backstage after one of my concerts in San Francisco. It tickled me that someone of her age – she was 19 at the time – was so devoted to my music, so I not only agreed to meet her but asked her to be my date for the evening. That’s how it all began. I can’t say that we didn’t notice the 40-year age difference when we met, but we barely notice it now. We’re compatible in so many ways and share the same interests. Susan is a woman with a wise, mature character and has brought balance and contentment to my life. Her goodness has helped me think straight, live well and, I’m quite certain, live longer.

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