What Can We Learn from Tony Bennett?

The Academy Awards last week were full of amazing moments, as they almost always are. One interview with Tony Bennett on the red carpet really struck me. I have heard Tony Bennett, the amazingly successful singer, several times at his live concerts. He has an incredible aura on stage, and his music has a unique recognizable style among an ocean of performers. Yet, this particular interview piqued my curiosity about Mr. Bennett, and what led him to where he is today.

I learned that he was born in New York (Queens), and grew up in extreme poverty. A child of immigrants, his mother was a seamstress and his father, a grocer, died when he was only 10. Prior to his death, Tony’s father instilled in him a love of art, music and compassion for humanity. These gifts are in many ways his father’s legacy. He dropped out of school when he was only 16 to help support his family. He served in the infantry in World War II on the front line (he later described as “a third row seat in hell”), and helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp. His dining with a black friend from high school, at the time when the Army was still racially segregated, led to his being demoted and reassigned to service duties in the Army. These life experiences helped form this man’s character.

How did he get his start on the road to musical fame?  Like many, he waited tables as he performed small musical gigs around New York. Then, in 1949, Pearl Bailey saw his talent, and asked him to open for her. That evening in Greenwich Village, she had also invited Bob Hope to the show. That exposure led Mr. Hope to take Tony on the road with him. The rest, as they say, is history. His life has not been without hardship and struggle. He has experienced multiple divorces, cocaine addiction, and many ups and downs in his musical career.

So, in addition to Mr. Bennett’s success, what was it in that interview that struck me? Mr. Bennett simply and humbly expressed his insatiable desire to keep learning. At age 85, he continues to grow, learn and express his creativity through watercolor and oil painting, sculpting, and many other mediums. He has achieved tremendous financial success, and yet he has no intention of retiring, saying “If you study the masters – Picasso, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire – right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older.”

I am greatly inspired by this role model. Many are on a quest to accumulate enough financial wealth to finally retire or “do what they really want to do.” Not Mr. Bennett. Through his life, Mr. Bennett has overcome incredible odds and stood strongly against tremendous adversity. He chose a career doing what he loved and what truly made his heart sing. At this stage in life when he could choose to downshift, he chooses another route: that of a life-long learner with a passion driven quest for experience, knowledge, ongoing expression and contribution. What a role model!