As legendary crooner Tony Bennett nears 90, the 17-time Grammy Award winner shows no sign of slowing down.
Bennett recently celebrated his 87th birthday with a sold-out concert at the Hollywood Bowl, followed by a glitzy Beverly Hills bash attended by the likes of John Travolta and Sidney Poitier. Now he’s back on tour with his youngest daughter, Antonia, entertaining audiences throughout North America.
“I’m still trying to prove that you get better as you get older,” said Bennett, who performs Saturday at Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles.
According to Bennett, whose many accomplishments include two Emmy Awards, Kennedy Center Honors and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the secret to a long and successful career can be summed up in one word: passion.
“People don’t believe me when I say this, but I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he said. “I always say to myself, ‘I can’t get over what a good job I’ve chosen.’ ”
Bennett got his start as an entertainer by performing for his Italian-American family.
“Those were the ones who created a passion in my life by saying ‘We love the way you sing, and you make us feel good,’ ” said Bennett, who grew up in the New York City borough of Queens during the Great Depression. “I always had a passion to paint and to sing.”
He honed his artistic talent as a teenager, attending what is now New York’s High School of Art and Design. There, a music teacher enraged the rest of the staff by telling Bennett, “‘You’re pretty good. You should go into show business,” he recalled, instead of pursuing the fine arts.
And so he did. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Bennett studied singing at the American Theatre Wing on the G.I. Bill.
He was performing at a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1949 when he caught the attention of comedian Bob Hope, who convinced the singer to change his name from “Anthony Dominick Benedetto” to “Tony Bennett.”
“At the very beginning, I learned that many people that are associated with the business really give people a hard time before they get going,” said Bennett, who launched his recording career with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in 1950. “(Then) I started selling records and gained a good popularity, and it’s been going good ever since.”
By the early 1960s, Bennett had become one of Columbia Records’ most popular artists, with a catalog of jazz songs, pop standards and show tunes. The release of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1962 took his popularity to the next level.
“It changed my whole life. Everybody in the world knows that song,” said Bennett, who initially thought the A-side song on that single, “Once Upon a Time,” would be a bigger hit. Instead, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” became his signature song.
Although Bennett endured a career dry spell in the 1970s and ’80s — marked by divorce, debt and drug addiction — he re-emerged triumphant in the early ’90s with a slate of late-night show appearances, benefit concerts and albums paying homage to Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra and his own career. He even appeared on “MTV Unplugged.”
Asked how he was able to persevere through those tough times, Bennett quoted his friend Duke Ellington.
“He said, ‘No. 1, don’t quit, and No. 2, listen to No. 1,” the singer recalled. “You just have to be consistent and (keep) going for it no matter what.”
Bennett has obviously taken that advice to heart, releasing more than 70 albums over the course of his career. (He has also written or co-written four books, including 2012’s “Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett.”)
Recent releases include 2007’s “Duets: An American Classic,” 2011’s “Duets II” and 2012’s “Viva Duets.”
“Bennett & Brubeck — The White House Sessions — Live 1962,” released in May, features long- forgotten recordings of a Camelot-era concert with jazz icon Dave Brubeck.
Singing at the White House is “intimidating, but what an honor,” said Bennett, who has performed for every U.S. president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, with the exception of Richard Nixon. His favorite White House audience was Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“It was the first time I didn’t have to stand at attention,” he said, praising Bill Clinton’s laid-back vibe. “You could walk up to him with your hands in your pockets. … He’s very gregarious, very chatty.”
According to Bennett, “Bennett and Brubeck,” which includes the classics “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town),” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “That Old Black Magic,” is more than just a snapshot of a bygone era. It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of the Great American Songbook, he said.
“There’s not one song (from that era) that sounds dated or old-fashioned. All the songs sound current,” Bennett said, thanks to the skill of composers Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and their Tin Pan Alley peers.
In fact, he considers that period to be an artistic renaissance on par with the one experienced in France at the turn of the 19th century.
“I’m convinced that, 30 or 50 years from now, what we call light entertainment today will be called America’s classical music,” he said.
When that happens, Bennett will likely be there to introduce those songs to yet another generation.
“I love entertaining people. There’s nothing better than it,” said Bennett, who lists Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra as his main influences. “It’s so gratifying to me to know that I made a large audience feel good.”
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Saturday, doors open at 6 p.m.
Vina Robles Amphitheatre, 3800 Mill Road, Paso Robles
$44 to $129.50
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.