Tony Bennett reached a milestone that few working performers could ever hope to: 60 years since his first hit.
For the legendary singer from Queens, N.Y., the anniversary didn't pass quietly. He did it swinging hard -- topping the album charts for the first time in his career with "Duets II," and making him, at 85, the oldest performer ever to reach that peak.
He got there through a combination of respect and talent. When Tony Bennett comes calling, people answer, whether it's Lady Gaga, Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin or anyone else who appears on this acclaimed second collection. Mr. Bennett, who returns to Heinz Hall Saturday with his daughter Antonia, could arguably be called "the last of the great crooners."
"That's something that I never dreamed of," he said in a phone interview this week. "That just happened. It's amazing. It's a wonderful school. Nat 'King' Cole and Sinatra were 10 years older than I was, so they became my masters. Those were the people that I just said, 'Someday I'd like to be as successful as they are.' So, I imitated not their voice, but the way they did it. In those days you tried to find a song and you tried to own a song by the way you interpreted it, like Sinatra did with 'Wee Small Hours of the Morning,' Nat Cole did with 'Lush Life' and, of course, my signature song, 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.' We ended up owning those songs because of the performance."
Mr. Bennett started performing as an Army infantryman fighting on the front lines in Europe during World War II. He returned home in 1946, sickened by what he saw during the war but also inspired to make it in show business. He soon came to the attention of people such as Pearl Bailey, Bob Hope and Mitch Miller, who signed him to Columbia Records, where he had his first hit, "Because of You."
Long story short: Since then, he has won 15 Grammy Awards, sold more than 50 million records worldwide and charted albums in seven different decades.
"I just kept doing what I was doing," he said. "When disco became famous, when rap became famous, that was good, that was their thing. When I came back out of the service, on the GI Bill, they gave us the best teachers at the American Theatre Wing. One of the things they taught us is to never compromise, only do quality. If you were an actor, make sure it was a great author. If it was music, only go with the greatest. So I ended up doing Gershwin and Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, all the great composers. And they were songs that will never die. They're not old songs, they're just great songs. In fact, I'm convinced that 35 or 40 years from now, instead of being called light entertainment, they will be called 'America's classical music.' "
Once again, that is the source material for "Duets II," which finds him working with the hottest contemporary singers and legends who have been around since the '60s. The most talked-about collaborations, Gaga and Amy Winehouse, also turn out to be the standouts. A video of the crooner and Gaga doing "The Lady Is a Tramp" captures their chemistry and her spontaneity.
"Oh my God, she's so talented," he said. "Being 85 and being successful most of that time, I've had the pleasure of meeting all the singers -- from Sinatra to Lena Horne, and Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, she was a great friend of mine. But Lady Gaga is so talented, I can't even evaluate. And what a wonderful person she was. After we did the record, she went around to the whole crew -- the engineers, the stagehands -- and thanked them privately for believing in her and being nice to her. One of the nicest people I've ever met and by far the most talented. She changes every night. She becomes a different artist every night. She sings great. She dances great. She plays wonderful piano. She's got it all. She's one of the great artists of all time, as far as I'm concerned."
His duet with Ms. Winehouse, on "Body and Soul," is a more sultry affair, with the British singer channeling another tragic figure, Billie Holiday. It is the last song she recorded before her death on July 23 of alcohol poisoning at 27.
"It felt great, but tragic at the same time," he said of working with her. "She was just a tremendous jazz singer. And what a crime she died at such an early age. Nevertheless, her dream came true and she wanted to go to the top, and her last record [which comes out Dec. 5] is going to go to the top, because everybody wants to hear it."
Unlike most collaborative projects these days, not to mention Sinatra's "Duets" records in the early '90s, Mr. Bennett insisted that they be recorded with the singers actually in the studio together. So, he traveled to London, LA, Nashville, Tenn., New York and Pisa, Italy, to cut the vocals. Most of them were done in one to three takes, which is how he likes to work.
His albums now number in the 70s, and he's not finished yet.
"Stevie Wonder and I are talking," he said. "He's talked about us renting a beautiful home in Los Angeles for four or five weeks to work out an album. We shall see."
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