Here & Now‘s Robin Young sat down with Bennett in his New York studio to talk about the new memoir — an homage to the people who’ve inspired his remarkable journey from Queens, New York, to citizen of the world.
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Book Excerpt: ‘Just Getting Started’
By Tony Bennett with Scott Simon
My mother, Anna Suraci Benedetto, sewed dresses. She worked in a factory by day and brought home dresses at night because she was paid by the piece and had to support my brother, my sister, and me. My father had died when I was ten. Every night, we’d meet my mother at the Ditmars Boulevard el train stop, the north terminal of the lines from Queens, when she returned from Manhattan and help her carry home a big bundle of unsewn dresses. We’d climb the stairs, and she’d start to sew as soon as she got home. She’d stop to make us dinner, and after that, while we kids read or listened to music, she would bend over her sewing machine again to continue stitching dresses.
Sometimes she’d get her thumb caught under the sewing needle. She’d cry out in pain but put on a bandage and go back to work. She couldn’t afford to stop. Watching her made me vow, in my heart, to be so good at something I loved that my mother wouldn’t have to work again.
I sat next to my mother as she worked, just to be near her, and every now and then she’d pick up a new dress to be sewn, feel the cloth between her fingers, and set it aside with a frown.
She’d say, “I only work on quality dresses.”
Our family needed every dime my mother would get to stitch one more piece. But my mother would not sew a dress that was not up to her standards. She showed me that people should take pride in what they do.
I thought of my mother years later as I began my career, enjoyed success, and encountered setbacks. I was determined to be so successful to make up for all my mother had sacrificed for us. I never wanted her to have to bend down over another sewing machine again, except to sew something for her grandkids. But when a producer or promoter would tell me that I needed to record a song I considered cheap, shoddy, silly, or senseless, I’d think of my mother and tell him, in so many words, “Sorry, I only work on quality material.”
My mother, the seamstress, taught me a life lesson about art that I’ve learned applies to life and love, too: hold out for quality. You might have to work a little harder. It will take a little longer. But you will produce something that lasts.
Excerpted from the book JUST GETTING STARTED by Tony Bennett with Scott Simon. Copyright © 2016 by Tony Bennett with Scott Simon. Republished with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.