I’ll gladly confess it: I am a huge fan of Tony Bennett. Not just because he’s a phenomenal vocalist (even Frank Sinatra called him “the best singer in the business”) or because he and I come from the same New York City neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. The truth is, I love his style in so many ways beyond the musical. To state it plainly: How he has chosen to live exemplifies three basic realities of the older adult experience: adaptability, resourcefulness, and generativity.
Bennett rocketed to pop superstar fame in the 1950s, but it didn’t last long. The rise of rock music in the ’60s left him struggling for gigs and record deals, despite the fact that younger artists and groups such as Elvis Pressley, The Four Seasons, and The Beatles were including in their albums standards from The Great American Songbook.
A change came in the late ’80s, when the renditions of twentysomething Harry Connick Jr. served as background music to the popular movie When Harry Met Sally. Suddenly there seemed to be a newfound appreciation for tunes by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George and Ira Gershwin. Coincidentally, that’s also when Bennett realized that he could adapt to the changing times and, more importantly, that he wanted to. And that’s when his resourcefulness kicked in. He knew very well what his talents were and how they could be more widely shared, given a new audience. So beginning in the 1990s, he started appearing on MTV and newly “hip” late-night talk shows. And the hit albums and public appearances returned.
Yet for Bennett, then in his 60s, it wasn’t enough to make a comeback. He saw the value in finding an enduring way to share his passion for great American music by creating a legacy that could serve future musicians –– a later-years impulse that developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called “generativity.” He began to record a series of Duets albums, collaborating with iconic Gen X and Millennial singers such as Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Amy Winehouse, Michael Bublé, and Queen Latifah, as well as with Latinx performers such as Maria Gadú and Vicentico. In 2001, he founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts public high school, in his beloved old neighborhood. These acts of consummate humanity and generosity boosted his public appreciation even higher, and in 2017 at age 91 he was awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the first non-songwriter to win the honor.
Adaptability, resourcefulness, and generativity are personality traits available to us at any age, but most especially in our later years, depending on how much wisdom we glean from our cumulative experiences and how much psychological effort we invest in being more self-aware and other-directed.
How can each of us better hone and apply these traits in our lives as we age? And what benefits might we reap when we do? In Tony Bennett’s case, he acquired a new relevance in the music world, stretched himself as a performer as he collaborated with younger vocal stylists, and broadened the appeal of The Great American Songbook for generations to come.
Not a bad deal for a guy from Astoria, Queens. And not a bad role model for us older adults, either.