October 26, 1992 12:00 PM

>”DON’T EVER DO CHEAP SONGS”

BACKSTAGE AT RADIO CITY MUSIC Hall, Tony Bennett was nervous. “This was 1982, the Night of 100 Stars,” Bennett says, leaning back on a big white sofa in his apartment above the Astro Diner in midtown Manhattan. “I was about to make my entrance in this horse-drawn carriage, and I was afraid it would fall into the audience. Orson Welles was next to me. I had never met him, so I said hello. He said, I go to all Frank Sinatra’s parties, and he doesn’t play anybody else’s records but yours.’ At that moment the announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Tony Bennett!’ I went out there feeling fantastic.”

Just an offbeat entry in Bennett’s 40-year mental log of gratitude to the singer he regards as “the Al Jolson of our time—he conquered every aspect of the entertainment world.” With Perfectly Frank, Bennett hopes to repay Sinatra for years of private encouragement and public praise. Bennett first saw Sinatra perform with Tommy Dorsey at the Paramount Theater on Broadway during World War II (admission, with movie: 75 cents). By the time they first met in 1956, Bennett had already placed six songs in the Top 10. Yet when he was offered Perry Como’s NBC variety show for the summer, butterflies hit.

“I told people I wanted to ask Sinatra’s advice, and they said. “He can be tough. Better look out.’ He was at the Paramount again, and I went backstage, and he was just the opposite—very interested, very caring. I said, ‘I’m falling apart, I’m overwhelmed, I don’t know what to do.’ And he gave me a wonderful solution. He said, ‘Don’t let that bother you. The audience only dislikes you when you’re not nervous.’ He also said, ‘Don’t ever do cheap songs,’ and that became a battle I waged with producers my whole life.” Bennett credits Sinatra with having pioneered the charity benefit concert in the ’50s. “He’s a complex character. It’s like the way Olivier played Hamlet—he’s everybody rolled into one. With Sinatra you never know what’s going to happen next.” As for Bennett, “In painting [his lifelong avocation] and music, if you keep your wits about you, the older you get, the better it gets. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll be able to show future singers that they can do that.”

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