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NPR's Scott Simon reflects on co-authoring book with Tony Bennett

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our colleague Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition here at NPR, actually wrote a book with Tony Bennett, which came out in 2016, when Bennett was just turning 90. It's called "Just Getting Started." And Scott is with us to tell us more about it. Scott, welcome. Thank you for joining us. And I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: Oh. Yeah, it's rough around here.

MARTIN: It is.

SIMON: Thank you.

MARTIN: So first of all, how did it come about that you wrote a book together?

SIMON: You know, he liked what I'd written - my parents, as you know, from a show business background of not a lot of distinction. My mother was a showgirl. My father was a comedian. He liked the way I'd written in previous books about show business. He'd played a couple of the same places my parents did. He asked me to do this book with him of some of his memories of people in show business.

And I remember having lunch in New York. And I said, look, it sounds wonderful. I love you, but I don't know about being a co-writer on anything. And Tony said to me - forgive my bad imitation - (impersonating Tony Bennett) Yeah, you know, kid, I had the same reaction. The only time I ever took second billing in my life was with Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington.

MARTIN: Oh.

SIMON: And I said, OK, OK.

MARTIN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You've convinced me.

MARTIN: Right. So what did he tell you about his signature piece, "I Left My Heart In San Francisco"?

SIMON: He had never so much seen a cable car when he saw the song. He was playing in Hot Springs, Ark., a nightclub. His longtime pianist, Ralph Sharon, had the sheet music in a shirt drawer. It had been written in the early '50s by George Cory and Douglass Cross for Claramae Turner, who'd been a soprano at the San Francisco Opera. They took it out one night after their show in Hot Springs. The bartender said, that's a great song. If you record that, I'll buy the first copy. They reached San Francisco on their nightclub tour. They recorded it a few weeks later. It was on the flip side of "Once Upon A Time," which was a song from the musical the "All American." And, of course, it became one of the all-time hits of American popular music.

MARTIN: Do you feel up to talking more about him? I know it's a tough day for you. Can we keep going?

SIMON: Oh. You know, he was - what - I will just never forget the blessing I had in my life to sit with him in his artist studio, as a matter of fact, because he became a very serious painter, and just listening to him tell story after story. And his stories never really had a villain. He only told me the stories about people he liked and experiences he treasured and savored. And I remember leaving his studio every day after we'd worked together and think, boy, that's a lesson in life in and of itself, isn't it?

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people who are, let me just put it this way, of a different generation understand about him or know about him is that he collaborated with artists from very different eras and...

SIMON: Who all admired him, and...

MARTIN: ...Very different genres. Of course, Lady Gaga is one that immediately comes to mind.

SIMON: And Amy Winehouse, whom he worshipped and felt so bad when she left us, particularly under such tragic circumstances. He had a quality of excellence and taste and craftsmanship and professionalism that, I think, communicated across generational lines. And that's what so many people treasured about him. And as he used to say to me all the time, talking about the kind of songs that - he said, it's all classical music.

MARTIN: Interesting.

SIMON: These are songs that we grew up with, that we hear, that are familiar points of references in our life. And I think nobody injected them with the kind of humanity and quality that Tony had in his voice, which, by the way, he always said was the voice of his father, who unfortunately died when Tony was 9 or 10. And...

MARTIN: That's the kind of thing that could make a man bitter. And I wanted to hear more about - you talked about his kind of fundamental kind of kindness and decency and appreciation for - not just for other artists, for other people. Can you just talk a little bit about where you think that came from? I mean, he's had a rough early go of it.

SIMON: His father...

MARTIN: And that could have made a man kind of angry and bitter.

SIMON: Yeah. Well - and he went through some - you know, he went through some times like that. When he was 11, he sang at the opening of what we now call the Brooklyn Bridge, not the - I'm sorry - the Verrazano Bridge. No, I forget. He sang at the opening of a bridge.

MARTIN: Big bridge, really big one, yeah. Big bridge.

SIMON: And a really big bridge in New York for Fiorello La Guardia. And I think he had - he lost his father, but he also felt very blessed in life. He had tough times in combat during World War II, and he felt very blessed to have survived. He hit very grim times in the '70s. And he was the first to talk about problems that he had with drugs. And of course, the kind of music that he sang was falling out of popularity. But then he returned, not by changing himself, because he couldn't - didn't want to change himself - by just asserting all over again his excellence in his craft. And he felt very blessed to have that recognized and to have stars of a young generation recognize it and be drawn to him and be able to collaborate with him, so yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, I still would love to hear more about how the two of you worked together. I mean, two veteran professionals, both celebrated, if I may say, in your respective fields, but still very different. Just - can you just talk a little bit about what it was like?

SIMON: Oh, I'm nothing - absolutely nothing - compared to Tony. You know, I would just sit there in his artist studio and throw a name out at him. I mean, I did do some homework and read about his life, obviously, and knew about his life. I'd throw, you know, Nat King Cole. (Impersonating Tony Bennett) Oh, yeah, I remember the time Nat and I - and he would just tell story after story. It was an absolute pleasure. And I think one of the things that I took from that is that I think his life was a series of scenes for him, that he would go from one to the other. You know, when Duke Ellington had a song that he wanted him to record, Duke Ellington would always send him a dozen long-stemmed red roses.

MARTIN: Oh.

SIMON: And - yeah, I know. And Tony once said to me, you know, Duke wrote thousands of songs. Boy, that would have been a lot of roses if I had recorded all of them.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But he felt blessed to be recognized by someone of the talent of Duke Ellington.

MARTIN: And you seem to have felt blessed by your time with him, so thank you for sharing some of those memories with us. That's NPR's Scott Simon. He wrote a book with Tony Bennett called "Just Getting Started." Scott, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing these memories.

SIMON: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "DEPARTURE (HOME)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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