Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin, and you're listening to Here's The Thing from WNYC Radio.
That's Tony Bennett, and the woman singing with him, Lady Gaga. Duets II, which featured Bennett singing with the likes of Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, and Amy Winehouse, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Tony Bennett was 85 years old, the oldest living artist to debut at number one.
Tony Bennett is an exceptional talent with old-school charm, but this sort of resurgence doesn't just happen. It was the result of 30 years of hard work from his son and manager, my guest today, Danny Bennett.
Danny says, “I don't just handle a career; I manage a legacy.”
Alec Baldwin: It was Danny who helped bring his dad's music to a younger generation. Danny got Tony on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. And it wasn't just the music. He put his dad on a budget, he stabilized his father's finances.
Danny Bennett was a musician himself but found he had a greater knack for business. Last year he produced a film called The Zen of Bennett, which followed his dad as he records the Duets album.
Danny was used to hanging around these performers. He grew up surrounded by musical giants.
Danny Bennett: I was born in the Bronx, raised in Englewood, New Jersey.
Alec Baldwin: You grew up in the Bronx until you were how old?
Danny Bennett: No, just like two years.
Alec Baldwin: Briefly, quickly. And then you guys went to Englewood?
Danny Bennett: Englewood, New Jersey.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Danny Bennett: Englewood was an amazing place. It's literally 15 minutes from Midtown, right across the George Washington Bridge, and I was born in 1954 – I'm 59 now – and it was a very exciting time. You had a lot of artists from kind of the showbiz thing. There was Tony. There was Dick Shawn, Joey Bishop, Buddy Hackett.
Alec Baldwin: They were all in the _____.
Danny Bennett: They were just right there. Tony would come and do his sessions in the city, at Columbia Studios, and then the jam session would continue in my house, so they would just like, 'Hey, let's go back to the house.' He had a little studio, and when I say the basement it was an above-ground basement kind of thing. As a little kid, I'd wake up to the strings of Count Basie, and just amazing stuff.
Alec Baldwin: When you were a kid, I suppose most people would assume, are those your childhood memories of being awash in music of that period?
Danny Bennett: Well, I often say now, I feel like Forrest Gump. I don't know why I had an appreciation for the moment. As a kid, I just did. It wasn't just music. Besides being able to sit on the piano stool with Duke Ellington – I mean, that's crazy. But I remember sitting on my dad's lap at a political rally, with JFK running for president, at the Teaneck Armory.
He's sitting in back. There's Jack Kennedy giving a speech, and I'm seeing all the placards. So it's like I'm always seeing the back side of things, which is an interesting perspective, because it's just that image burned in my brain. What was I –
Alec Baldwin: Eight or nine years old.
Danny Bennett: Yeah. So it's those kinds of things, or Louis Armstrong and Carol Channing at the White House. It's like, what's that?
Alec Baldwin: So people who sang standards and sang, whether they were Broadway tunes or they were standards by the Harold Arlens of the world, and so forth, but music for you, your personal music was Dad going to the studio with Count Basie, and you had an electric guitar and you were singing Strawberry Fields?
Danny Bennett: Well, yeah. When I was ten years old, the Beatles hit, and that was it for me, and my brother, who plays drums. Immediately I found an old guitar in my dad's closet. He's been trying to learn guitar for a long time.
Alec Baldwin: He's going to get it eventually.
Danny Bennett: He's going to get it eventually, I'm telling you. Anyway, it was a Goya nylon-stringed guitar, and he had a book of 2,500 chords, one of those things. I was so obsessed. I had the Introducing the Beatles record, and I'd put the needle down, and go through the book and match the chord with the sound of the record. Oh, it's a G chord – and that's how I learned, by ear, how to play.
Alec Baldwin: What was the name of your band?
Danny Bennett: Quacky Duck.
Alec Baldwin: Right. So, Quacky Duck. It's you and your brother, and you have Quacky Duck, and you're how old?
Danny Bennett: Maybe like 16 at that point.
Alec Baldwin: Okay. So you're teenagers. Like all garage bands, you're teenagers. But at that same time, do you still have this kind of bicameral relationship with music? There's your dad and his music, and that's a presence in your life, and you have a fondness for it?
Danny Bennett: Oh, of course.
Alec Baldwin: And an appreciation for it? And then you're playing your - Because some people don't, necessarily.
Danny Bennett: No. Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong – I mean, these are –
Alec Baldwin: Royalty.
Danny Bennett: Royalty and huge influences on us. Obviously, we all have our icons. Tony has his icons, and rightfully so.
Alec Baldwin: We're going to get to that. But you're there. What happens as you finish high school? Is there a time that you put down your own musical career?
Danny Bennett: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: When was that?
Danny Bennett: We were extremely serious about it. We rehearsed after school.
Alec Baldwin: You wanted it.
Danny Bennett: We did it. It's interesting because we were never kind of into sports, and that's what we did. At a very early age, we were doing high school dances, and really, I've got to be honest with you, I haven't learned much since then. We learned how to, like, oh, wait a minute. You know what? We're selling tickets.
I remember going to the Student Union, and you'd get paid $200, which was great in the '60s. It was a lot of money. So we kind of made it on our own, and the Student Union would go, um, $200, and I'm like, man, we're selling the tickets to this show.
So I would go to the Student Union and I go, 'Hey, look, I'll tell you what. You guys are always on the line and you don't know if you're going to make any money. No guarantee. We'll take a cut of the door. We'll take 80 and you take 20.'
Alec Baldwin: This is where?
Danny Bennett: This is at the high school. So they're going, 'That's cool. Great. We don't have to worry about getting our ass kicked.' At the end of the night, I'm making $2,500, and they're going, 'Wait a minute.' So then I just went from one school to another.
Alec Baldwin: You finished high school, and where did you go?
Danny Bennett: We had a deal with Warner Brothers Records.
Alec Baldwin: You and your brother?
Danny Bennett: We used to play Max's Kansas City, with Gram Parsons – I don't know if you know Gram.
Alec Baldwin: Of course.
Danny Bennett: He was a good friend of ours. We toured with him. We were like, those were our heroes at the time, and that's where I met Bonnie and John Prine. I had this kind of really extraordinary wealth, because also, his original tour manager was a guy named Dee Anthony. He ended up being the penultimate rock manager and invented the triumvirate of promoter, Bill Graham, Dee Anthony, and the agent, Frank Barcelona, and they brought all these artists in from England. I was raised at Fillmore.
We were kind of an art band. We played at Max's with the Modern Lovers and the New York Dolls, and we just said, 'Let's come up with the most ridiculous name we can possibly come up with,' because we thought The Beatles was kind of a ridiculous name, so we were kind of making fun of that.
We were serious about that, working, built studios, and did that kind of thing, and it just got to a point where you know when you've got it and you know when you don't. I was always so enamored especially by the people I worked with, and other writers in my band. I was kind of really good at saying, 'Wow, that's a great song,' and I found that was my real talent.
Alec Baldwin: That's interesting. And then when does one day someone say, 'Danny, it's you. You're going to start becoming involved in this business, in Tony, Inc.'? Did it happen in a day? Is there an event that happens?
Danny Bennett: Well, kind of, and I can pinpoint when Tony kind of got on, like, wait a minute, he may know what's going on. The Beatles, for me, I was obsessed, with not only the art of it but the social aspect of it, the marketing of it. Marketing was fun. It wasn't a bad word. The balance between art and commerce was very much about what The Zen of Bennett is about. It's always been interesting to me.
The Beatles always thought the two minute and 40 seconds that they had, that was their canvas, and how best to make that work. I loved that concept. I love the constraints. Well, Tony always says, “there's free form – you've got to learn form before you can be free.” – and there's a lot to that. They couldn't have done Hey Jude without doing all those great songs that, boom, there they are; don't bore us, get to the chorus, but still maintain the art.
So moving into a time when Tony was - Again, we grew up around it. It was just immersed. At the dinner table, the conversations were about what was happening at Columbia Records. Oh, my God, Clive Davis became president of Columbia, the first attorney. It was a freaky thing. I was very tuned into that.
Alec Baldwin: Sinatra didn't make any of his daughters or his son his right-hand man.
Danny Bennett: Well, that would've never happened. We don't have to go there.
Alec Baldwin: But your dad did.
Danny Bennett: Yeah, well, he was at a point where, the thing at Columbia – this happened to everyone. Sinatra. Barbra Streisand. It was like, you're going to have to –
Alec Baldwin: Sing The Beatles' catalog.
Danny Bennett: They tried to get Barbra to sing Bob Dylan tunes, in 1969. She's listening to Dylan, going, what's this?
Alec Baldwin: Blowing in the wind. Blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.
Danny Bennett: Brilliant idea.
Alec Baldwin: That's a great one. Let's go again, Barbra.
Danny Bennett: Anyway, Tony actually worked with Clive, and he did an album that was kind of like that thing, and he got physically sick. He said he was regurgitating between takes. There's a great story that he tells about Clive Davis, where Duke Ellington went in and said he thought he was going in to get a raise, and Clive Davis said, 'Well, I have some bad news for you.' He goes, 'What is it?'
Clive's like, 'Well, we're going to have to drop you from the label.' Ellington goes, 'Well, why?' He says, 'Well, you're not selling enough records.' Ellington goes, 'Oh, I guess I was mistaken. I thought I was supposed to make the records and you were supposed to sell them.' That's my edict. I've heard that story, but it happened.
Alec Baldwin: That's every artist's anxiety.
Danny Bennett: But that was my thing.
Alec Baldwin: Someone said to me why do I hate making movies. And they said, 'Do you really hate making movies?' I said, 'Well, maybe hate is a strong word,” but I said, “I'm very uncomfortable.' They say, 'Why?' and I say, 'Because you just feel the hand of commerce at your throat every day we're shooting.' It's never free. It's rarely fun. It can be challenging, but you just feel like every dime is being counted.
Danny Bennett: Yeah, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: So they wanted your dad to do what he couldn't do, and he rebels against that.
Danny Bennett: They gave him a big contract, and he was like, 'No. I don't want to do this. I want to start my own label.' Now, this is at a time when people weren't doing that. I mean, Sinatra did it with Mo Ostin, but it was done more on a Warner Brothers thing. He found Jack Rollins, Woody Allen's manager, and a number of other great people, to work with him on a label called Improv. This is where he made the Bill Evans records, voice and piano. Those records weren't being made at the time.
So he came to me and talked to me about the label, and I said, 'That's a great idea.' I said, 'It's risky.' He said, 'What's risky about it?' And I said, 'Well, it doesn't seem like they have major distribution.' In this day and age, independent distribution is great. You can do it, Internet, but then it was a real challenge.
I said, 'Columbia is offering you to do a distribution deal,' which is great. It's kind of like they leave you alone and you can do what you want to do. He had me go talk to the guy that was running the company in Buffalo. He said, 'Go talk to him.' Now, I've got the long hair and the fringed jacket, and I go to this hotel owner in Buffalo, and I'm sitting there and he's like, 'what the hell is this about?'
And I start talking about the distribution. And I'm saying, “Yeah it's great, dadaboom.” And there were some other things about the contract that I didn't like that I told him about, in terms of him kind of getting roped into it. And this guy just rejected that whole notion. So I went back to Tony and I just said, 'Look, I wouldn't do this. I think there's, you know.'
Alec Baldwin: So no Improv Records?
Danny Bennett: Well, no. He did it.
Alec Baldwin: He did it. And how long did that last?
Danny Bennett: It lasted three years, and they failed because of the distribution.
Alec Baldwin: So he does Improv Records, and then –
Danny Bennett: He can't get the records distributed, so that's what I told him. He remembered that. I had, on a casual basis, just said to him, 'I wouldn't do this deal unless you have major distribution. The independent thing I said, 'I don't think it's going to work.' So when it didn't work because of the independent distribution, he remembered that, and then the label folded, and then he was without a contract.
Alec Baldwin: For how long?
Danny Bennett: Let's see. I would say three or four years.
Alec Baldwin: What was that like for him?
Danny Bennett: Well, it's tough because, remember, at the time, this was around '78, ok? Sinatra retired.
Alec Baldwin: The Bee Gees are number one.
Danny Bennett: And Streisand is doing Duets with the Bee Gees. You know what I'm saying? And he didn't want to do it. And then he was in Vegas, and in those days you were doing Vegas, the 32-week thing, and all that stuff. He just called me up one day and he was just like, 'I need some help here. I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go.' He didn't have a manager.
Alec Baldwin: What did he want?
Danny Bennett: He wanted to be able to do his art on his terms.
Alec Baldwin: What was Vegas like for him? What is that like for someone? I remember reading Nick Tosches' book, Dino, about Dean Martin, one of the best biographies I've ever read. They talked about how Martin, at one point, in the '60s, I believe, was the highest paid entertainer in the world, because he touched every base. He touched all four bases. He had a television show, he had a recording contract, he starred in films, and he appeared live in Vegas, and did the concerts. He was making millions and millions of dollars back then.
I was wondering, for someone like your dad – actually, I don't know what Vegas exemplified back then. For an actor, was that like being on a game show?
Danny Bennett: Oh, no, no, no.
Alec Baldwin: So there was prestige to it?
Danny Bennett: This is where they cut their teeth, the lounges. Louis Prima in the lounge. You had Fred Astaire and Cary Grant going to see Sinatra, and then going to the lounge. This is where the audience was like, yeah, you know. And Tony makes a good point. We didn't have access to these people except the big screen, and all of a sudden, there they are, sitting there watching Louis Prima, rubbing shoulders with Sinatra and Cary Grant, and whatever.
This was magic. And, again, for Tony, you've got to remember, Tony is ten years younger than all these guys. These are his idols. Sinatra called him The Kid, and there he is with them all. Fred Astaire.
Alec Baldwin: It was a salon.
Danny Bennett: It was a salon, and nobody messed around, for the obvious reasons. And then you got into kind of this evolution, where the Summa Corporation and Howard Hughes took over. I had to negotiate with Howard Hughes and these cowboys. It was really interesting.
Alec Baldwin: What was that like?
Danny Bennett: Oh, it was amazing – and this is where, when I first started working, Howard Hughes is on the top of the Desert Inn. I know he's up there. There was this guy named Lenny, and he'd go in with me to negotiate the contract, and Lenny would get on his hands and knees. I'm going, seriously. And I'm going, 'What are you doing? Get off your knees. I'm not going to get on my knees and beg for a contract. I'm just not going to do it.'
Alec Baldwin: What was he saying? 'Get down here. Get down on your knees. This is how it works here in Vegas. Get on your knees for Mr. Hughes.'
Danny Bennett: And he's got the guys behind the desk with the big cowboy hats. I'm like, “Oh my god.” So I go to Tony. And here's a very interesting thing. I'm sitting outside the Desert Inn. I'm on a bench, and some dude comes and sits next to me, an older guy, and he's grumbling. And I turn around and he's like, 'Ah, I'm never coming back to Vegas again.' He's doing that kind of thing. I'm like, 'What's up?'
'I don't know. They used to fly me out here, and I used to drop fifty grand a pop, but, man, did they make me feel good about losing my money – the shows, the girls.” He's doing this. He goes, “They take it all away now. They don't want to know me.” He says, “I'm never coming back again.'
And I had an epiphany. I was like, we've got to get out of this town. It's going down. So I went to Tony and I said to him, 'Here's the gig. You've got to get out of this town. I know this is what you're used to.'
Alec Baldwin: And go where?
Danny Bennett: I said, 'You go to the people. We're going to go to colleges.'
Alec Baldwin: What year?
Danny Bennett: '79.
Alec Baldwin: This is the point at which you kind of climb into the cockpit with this guy who's this legend, and you're 25 years old.
Danny Bennett: I know, I know, I know.
Alec Baldwin: What you're teaching me in the conversation is that from the beginning, you were just saturated and inundated and interested, naturally, not just on a creative level but on a business level as well, and on a technical level.
Danny Bennett: Growing up in that environment, where kids were befriending me because the parents knew that if they befriended me, maybe they could have dinner with Tony at the thing – I developed an early sense of cutting through the crap. It's like I knew who my friends were and who they weren't. I could tell right away.
So I had this epiphany, and I said, 'You know what? I want to run him for president. I going to treat his campaign' – I love history, too. I'm like, 'I'm going to do this like I'm running for president.' I went to him and I said, 'You know, presidents would not go to Iowa if they didn't have to go to Iowa and shake the hands.' I go, 'Instead of having people come to you in Vegas,' I said, 'your music transcends, right?' And you can't do this with everybody.
I watch Tony – how many times have I seen the show? He's reinventing himself. He's really kicking ass, in terms of taking chances. That's really rock and roll. He's taking chances. The Rolling Stones are getting older, not really taking chances anymore. And here's Tony, what he calls moving the furniture around. I'm like, people just got to see this. There's a transcendent quality in great art that, like he says, defies demographics.
So I got into that. Letterman was doing the Late Show, where Fallon is now, and nobody went on that show.
Alec Baldwin: But after a few calls on Danny's part, Tony did. And there were other shows, many, many others.
Alec Baldwin: In a minute, Danny Bennett talks about the challenge of keeping up with his 87-year-old father.
Danny Bennett: The guy doesn't like to take elevators. He doesn't like to take escalators. We go to airports, he's up the stairs.
Alec Baldwin: I'm Alec Baldwin, and you're listening to Here's The Thing.
This is Alec Baldwin. My guest, Danny Bennett, is President of RPM Records and has managed the career of RPM's biggest star, his father, Tony Bennett, for over 30 years. His dad's career has had its ups and downs. The '70s weren't kind to vocalists who weren't interested in recording contemporary material. In 1979, Tony Bennett had no contract, no manager, a drug problem, and the IRS was at the doors.
Danny Bennett: Look, all artists go through this. When The Beatles hit, Sinatra, everyone, Elvis, he retired. He went away.
Alec Baldwin: Eating peanut butter sandwiches.
Danny Bennett: A lot. They were depressed. They were like, oh my God, the world is changing. Yeah, there was a big part of that, and he moved to the West Coast.
Alec Baldwin: He did? What was that like for him?
Danny Bennett: Yeah. It was hard. He's a New York boy. He's from Astoria, Queens. You know.
Alec Baldwin: Isn't it funny, because with The Beatles, when Lennon was down, he moved to L.A.
Danny Bennett: Yeah, exactly.
Alec Baldwin: When Lennon was depressed, he moved to L.A.
Danny Bennett: And what happened?
Alec Baldwin: He wasn't feeling so good.
Danny Bennett: He didn't do so well. Well, the same thing kind of happened. He got involved with the whole clique thing. Tony doesn't have a clique. He doesn't relate to that. He doesn't like entourages. He likes to keep it simple. His apartment, every year, something else disappears. It's becoming more Zen, and he loves his view over Central Park, and he's got his paintings. This is what he does. So the L.A. thing and the parties – it was hard to keep up.
Alec Baldwin: And having to remind ourselves every 15 minutes who we are.
Danny Bennett: Exactly, and then you get into that thing where it's like, 'I'm missing out. I should be at that party, and if I'm not, I'm a loser.' The whole L.A. thing. So he's not that. Certain people are cut –
Alec Baldwin: How long did he last out there?
Danny Bennett: Like four years.
Alec Baldwin: And he came back when, what year, roughly?
Danny Bennett: '76.
Alec Baldwin: So that was the '70s.
Danny Bennett: Yeah. And, you know, drug thing, financial things.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, everybody, everybody.
Danny Bennett: Right, so there was all that happening. It's funny because he wanted me to look at his finances. I'm not an accountant, but I'm a good common-sense person. We go to the accounting firm here and they dump stuff out on a table, like, yeah, let the kid figure this out.
Alec Baldwin: Knock yourself out, kid. We're going to go have a coffee.
Danny Bennett: Yeah, exactly.
Alec Baldwin: We'll be back in about an hour and a half. What's your name again – Danny? Good luck, Danny.
Danny Bennett: They were like, 'We couldn't do anything. What do you think you're going to do?' It's like that.
Alec Baldwin: Tell us when you get it all worked out, Danny. Call us.
Danny Bennett: Anyway, we did.
Alec Baldwin: And you did?
Danny Bennett: There were IRS problems. I went in and negotiated with them.
Alec Baldwin: This is what's interesting about your family. A lot of people, some of the last people they trust are their own families. If I'm a guy-
Danny Bennett: I don't blame them.
Alec Baldwin: Well, and a lot of these guys, and women, and people who make it big – and no one's made it bigger than your father – and they think everybody wants to stick their straw in their drink and suck. They want money, and they're all in it for the wrong reasons. You and he have– was it unique all along?
I don't meant to get too sappy and sentimental, but sitting on your dad's knee and it's JFK on stage and all that stuff, were you always close to him or were you a son, like any son, and you got closer and closer, and he began to see more and more?
Danny Bennett: No. It's interesting because we never related that way. He kind of always related to me as an adult.
Alec Baldwin: 'Danny, I want to talk to you. Son, I don't want you to be my son anymore. I want you to be my accountant.' He treated you like you were a business associate, a producer, a partner.
Danny Bennett: At the age of 12, he would come to me and he'd go, 'I don't know. I've got this thing. What do you think?' He didn't delineate. And, you know what? It's like, I guess, at the turn of the century, kids at 12 and 13 were working the fields, and they were operating machinery.
Alec Baldwin: They were given responsibility.
Danny Bennett: Yeah, and I think a lot of that –
Alec Baldwin: This was working in the fields for him.
Danny Bennett: This was working in the fields. It wasn't like –
Alec Baldwin: Go throw a baseball in the driveway.
Danny Bennett: Yeah, and celebrity, we couldn't go to the zoo. It was impossible. He took me to one movie, Planet Of the Apes. I remember, one movie, and that's okay.
Alec Baldwin: 'Danny, we're never going to the movies together again. I'm sorry. I love you, son, but I'm going to build a theater out there in Englewood, and we're going to watch the movies with Count Basie every Friday night.'
Danny Bennett: And that's that. But I always dug the fact that I got to go to the Copacabana.
Alec Baldwin: So the '80s go by, and you're in this phase where you're going to build RPM. You're going to build your company. You're going to do what you want to do, your way. But when did you know it was going to work? I don't mean to be corny and cinematic about it, but are you standing there one night, in the wings, and he's out there, and you go, 'It's working'?
Danny Bennett: No. I'll tell you when it was. Bob Guccione, Jr., was the editor of Spin magazine, and I was reading it. They were interviewing him in his own magazine, and asked him what he thought was the most influential thing about rock and roll, people in rock and roll. He said, 'Two people: James Brown and Tony Bennett.' I was like, that's wild. James Brown and Tony Bennett. This is Spin magazine. It's like the Pixies.
And then I went on reading, and the guy is like, 'Well, why? I understand James Brown, but why Tony Bennett?' He said, 'Because he's always taking chances.' This is like what I said, and this is what I was thinking about Tony. He's picking up this vibe on Tony.
I say Tony never sings the same thing once. He calls it moving the furniture around. There's no such thing as complacency. And now we're watching the big idols kind of get corporate, with the Stones doing their thing, and they're like cookie-cutter. Bob Guccione is talking about how the guy is an innovator.
So I called him up. It led to, they would do these fashion spreads, and I said, 'Why don't we do something with the Chili Peppers and Tony, and we could have fun with it?' So we did a show at the Hard Rock Café in L.A. with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tony. The Chili Peppers were punk at that time, before Rick Rubin got them. I say that in a complimentary way.
Alec Baldwin: In just an observational way, in a musicological way.
Danny Bennett: They did a good job. From there, it was just kind of like, wait a minute.
Alec Baldwin: Are you a snob because your father's a snob, or is your father a snob because you're a snob?
Danny Bennett: I'm not a snob. I'm not a snob.
Alec Baldwin: We're going to come back to that. I'm not letting you off on that. So he was with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Danny Bennett: Then I'm like, you know what? I was managing some other bands at that time in Boston, and I kind of got into this notion there were the alternative rock stations, and they did these college rock radio shows, at, like, RFK Stadiums, with Nine Inch Nails, so I was like, gee, I wonder if I pitch them about Tony being on the bill, if this would be novel enough for them?
And I pitched it. We're down at Washington, D.C., RFK Stadium, and there's Tony, and we're at RFK, 60,000 kids. It's PJ Harvey. He's going on between PJ Harvey and Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor.
Alec Baldwin: My god. And what happened?
Danny Bennett: Well, Tony's standing there looking, and he goes, 'Can I ask you something?' And then he goes, 'Would Frank do this?' I said, 'Nope, and that's why you're doing it.' And he goes, 'Okay, I get it,' and he goes out, kills. Kills. We were all, "You've got to take chances. We don't take chances anymore." And he killed.
Alec Baldwin: If it's good, they're going to dig it.
Danny Bennett: They're going to dig it, and they wouldn't let him off the stage, just his trio. Look, I consider myself a dragon-slayer for Tony. He calls me up once a month, I swear to God. He says, 'You know what? I just want to thank you once again, that I never have to talk to another record executive in my entire life.'
I helped him unblock the artistic channel, so I consider myself a dragon-slayer, as far as that's concerned, and that's what I'm proudest of, as far as that's concerned.
Alec Baldwin: So you go through this period, the '80s and the '90s.
Danny Bennett: Then, because of those concerts – I said, fuck this, I'm doing L.A., KROC – I did five of these things. Then he comes in to me one day and he goes, 'You know,' and now I'll do Tony, 'You know, I was watching MTV. I think I can do really well on MTV,' and then just walks out of my office. And I'm like, okay, I'll get on that.
Alec Baldwin: I'll get on that. Let me make a call. Hello, MTV?
Danny Bennett: No, but that's Tony, man.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Why not?
Danny Bennett: I got it. Well, Tony spelled backwards is what? Y not? That's what I say. Anyway, it was kind of like, well, how am I going to do this? Jon Stewart had a new show. They didn't really have artists. I said, well, I'll put Tony on the Jon Stewart show, and I kind of sold that idea to Doug Herzog, who now is at Comedy Central, and it was like, 'Hm, that could be interesting.' This is around '88 now. They dug it, so they put him on.
Alec Baldwin: How did he feel?
Danny Bennett: He's cool.
Alec Baldwin: Here's your father who, like any artist with a career that lasts decades, technological advance and change becomes another mountain for him to climb, and now he's on a television music channel. Did he love it? Did he dig it?
Danny Bennett: No. Here's the thing: It's the audience. His audiences were getting older, and when we were in front of that young audience – it's up here – and then he became 20 year old. I swear to God. I watched him. He just rises to the occasion from that audience. It's why he doesn't like to do arenas and things. He feeds off of that. And, here's the deal. They came and it was like, 'We've got Unplugged. I'd be interested to do Unplugged.' I was like, 'Yeah, fantastic.'
So seriously, man, we got all the MTV people, all the record people, and they start going, 'Great. We've got Tony Bennett. This is going to be fantastic. Tony is going to sing With or Without You, a Bono song, and Runaway Train,' and I was like, 'Whoa. You know what, guys? I really appreciate this but this is a train wreck. It's never going to happen,' and I walked out.
Then they said, 'Come back in. What are you talking about?' I said, 'Listen. You guys are MTV.' This was in the day of MTV. I said, 'You guys got balls. What's going to take balls is to do Tony's music and have them sing Tony's music.' And I said, 'That's balls. That's MTV,' and they were like, 'Yeah.'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, we got balls.
Danny Bennett: We got balls. We're gonna do that.
Alec Baldwin: Don't we, Mary? You've got balls, don't you, Mary? Yes I do! I've got huge balls.
Danny Bennett: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Whose idea was the Duets album? Originally?
Danny Bennett: It wasn't an original idea.
Alec Baldwin: But I'm saying, but for him, those are very complicated things to do. To lasso all those people, isn't that a pain in the ass?
Danny Bennett: Yeah, you had Sinatra, and then you had Ray Charles. I mean, he sold 15 million records. Pretty good idea. So I'm like, how do I go and reinvent Tony. And then we went on with MTV to win album of the year with the Grammy's, got a lot of people upset. It was like, what's going on with that? But when you look at it, Alec, he heralded in the iPod generation. You can listen to Tony and Billie Holiday and also listen to Pearl Jam. It didn't matter. So kids started opening up to that. I give him a lot of credit for that.
Alec Baldwin: Your father has you in his corner, obviously, for many, many years now, his own son, his flesh and blood. He has a wife, your stepmother, who obviously is omnipresent and around all the time with him. He's got two people who are taking good care of him, and he's getting on in years. I mean, he's older.
Danny Bennett: And my brother's been producing his records.
Alec Baldwin: And your brother. I'm assuming that a lot of it is you've got to take as much stress off him as possible, because he's working a full schedule, and he's 80-what years old now?
Danny Bennett: He's going to be 87.
Alec Baldwin: He's still going.
Danny Bennett: Well, a lot of people don't look at me and go, like, 'What are you doing? Leave him be.'
Alec Baldwin: No, no. Oh, they do?
Danny Bennett: Oh yeah, and I'm like, 'It's not me.' Seriously, I'm very conscientious of his age. The guy doesn't like to take elevators. He doesn't like to take escalators. We go to airports, he's up the stairs. He's the first one out. Keeping up with him is a challenge.
Alec Baldwin: There's something about people who, they make the most of what they have. There are people who, they have something. Pacino once had a great line to me. I said to Pacino, 'Do you ever get uptight when you make films with people who you worry that they might not be able to cut it? Like you don't want to exert too many controls and authorities and approvals, and this guy in the cast drops out, and this girl shows up, this guy shows up. You're doing scenes with people and you're Al Pacino and these other people maybe aren't as good as you – what do you do?'
And I'll never forget, Pacino says, 'Alec, what I realize is everybody's talented in this business, everybody who makes it to the level we're at, making films and everything. They're all talented. Some are just more talented than others. But everybody, I say to myself that everybody is talented.' He said, 'Someone would say he had a talent for telling jokes, or he had a talent for dealing cards. Everyone is talented at something.'
The thing, to me, is that there's people in this business who go far and they make the most of what they have, and what they have is like blah-blah-blah, but your father is somebody who had the most. He had the most talent. Your father, I'll sit down-
Danny Bennett: I don't think it's the most talent. I think he's tuned into his talent the most.
Alec Baldwin: Well, that's your opinion. He owes you a lot. He owes you a lot. But I'm saying you've helped him to keep that fire burning, because there's a lot of people who, what happens is, they have the talent, what they lose is the will. They're like, 'I just don't want to do this anymore.' I've sat with them.
Danny Bennett: I know, or they lower the bar because they don't want to be disappointed. That's the key. Tony never lowers that bar. It's always up.
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think that is? What is it in him?
Danny Bennett: Look, I was watching, once again – I hadn't seen it in a long time – the Maisel brothers'' film on Horowitz. Do you know that one?
Alec Baldwin: No. I never saw it.
Danny Bennett: Oh, my God, you've got to watch this. There's just filming him playing piano in his living room, and you watch this guy playing and you're going like, 'Where is that coming from?' He's somewhere else, and Tony is the same way. That's why I had Lost In the Stars at the end of the movie, The Zen of Bennett. Lost in the Stars. It's out there in the cosmos. It's the essence of Zen. It's about being in the moment. For me, art is like, James Joyce says about, it's an arresting moment, and the world disappears, and you're in the moment. But when you do that, it puts us in the moment.
Alec Baldwin: Find out more about Danny Bennett's film, The Zen of Bennett, on our website, heresthething.org. This is Alec Baldwin. Here's The Thing is produced by WNYC Radio.