When you’ve been as successful as Tony Bennett over 60 years in show business, you gain some wisdom along the way. After selling millions of records, winning countless awards and earning the respect of his peers, Bennett shares some of the universal truths that guide him in his new book, “Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett” (HarperCollins, $28.99).
In many ways, Bennett’s story reads like a classic American novel. Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born to poor Italian immigrants in Astoria, Queens, and worked his way up to become a talented singer and artist (he sprinkles his whimsical sketches throughout the book). He recently took up songwriting and sculpting and, at age 86, is still energized and eager to learn.
The book suggests he has been able to achieve all that by sticking to his core values: close family relationships, high quality work and passion for what he does.
Like the Zen principles he advocates, Bennett writes in simple, plain prose. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of his life and career, revealing stories that define his path and unique perspective. Each chapter concludes with Zen advice that applies to anyone striving to be better.
One of his axioms is “The family circle protects and enriches ...” He writes affectionately about his wife and four children, and works with each of them in different aspects of his career. He combined two of his mantras — following your passion and giving back — when he founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens.
The crooner candidly criticizes many in the music business for skimping on merit and focusing only on profits. He wants to produce classic songs that will endure over time and appeal to all audiences, instead of copying popular trends. He credits his commitment to his craft with his success. “Many people think what I do looks effortless, but it takes years of practice to make it look easy.” His Zen lesson for young artists: “Instead of focusing on being number one, attempt to be one of the best.”
Bennett served in the Army in Germany during World War II and marched for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama in 1965. He writes about witnessing many incidents of prejudice that pained him and reinforced his beliefs in peace and tolerance. Chapter headings include “War Is Insanity” and “Everything Should Be Done With Love.”
Bennett’s style is conversational and full of cliches, but readers can almost hear his distinctive cadence as he waxes nostalgic. He has sung for every president since Dwight Eisenhower (Bill Clinton was his favorite), and pages of celebrity photos and tidbits read like a who’s who of show business.
Although he admits using drugs in the past, when mourning the loss of greats like Amy Winehouse, his Zen advice is clear: “To take drugs is to sin against one’s talent.”
Readers looking for a straight autobiography should go back to Bennett’s earlier books as this memoir paints only broad strokes of his life experience and glosses over his down times. He only briefly mentions his divorces and drug abuse, and the tone is profoundly positive. Critics may find the book preachy and Bennett’s list of accomplishments and sunny outlook self-indulgent, but the celebrity and career anecdotes will likely appeal to fans.