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by mikael wood
photography by martin schoeller | January 9, 2012 | People
|Onstage at the Latin Casino in Philadelphia in 1958|
|Bennett receives a warm welcome in Kansas City in ’58|
At 85 years old, Tony Bennett is beginning to feel comfortable sharing the secrets of his success. Chief among them? “I never did disco,” the legendary pop crooner confides with a knowing chuckle. “I never did rap. I never tried to make a hit record that would be quickly forgotten.” Instead, Bennett’s guiding principle—one he’s stuck with over the course of a 60-plus-year career—has been deceptively simple. “I just kept being myself,” he says. “And I never compromised. I made songs that last.”
In fact, he's still making them. This month Bennett’s latest album, Duets II, has earned him two Grammy nominations, including Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. When it was released last September, the disc debuted atop the Billboard 200, earning Bennett his very first No. 1 album and setting a record for the oldest-living act to reach the sales chart’s pinnacle.
A sequel to 2006’s Duets: An American Classic (which itself won Bennett his 13th Grammy, his fourth for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album), the disc captures Bennett in close collaboration with a host of singers from across the stylistic spectrum—some close to Bennett’s turf (think Natalie Cole and k.d. lang), and some considerably less so (Mariah Carey and Willie Nelson). Duets II also pairs Bennett with a number of younger stars such as Lady Gaga, John Mayer, and the late Amy Winehouse, whose final recorded performance before her death last July was her and Bennett’s smoky rendition of the jazz standard “Body and Soul” (the single nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance).
“What’s incredible about Tony is that he’s doing it as well right now as he’s ever done it,” says Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy, which presides over the Grammys. “And the other thing is he reaches back and forward at the same time, taking his extraordinary interpretations of the great classic songs and looking to share that stage with the artists of today. You listen to his records, and you’re learning something at the same time you’re being entertained. There’s so much Grammy spirit in what he does.”
“I’ve sat at the Hollywood Bowl with my wife and watched Tony play,” says Michael Bublé, who calls recording with Bennett (on both Duets albums) one of the few “I-made-it moments” in his life. “It’s so nice to process what’s happening at those concerts, and it gives me a clue as to what’s happening in my audience as well. It’s people of all ages—they’ve got their arms around each other, smiling and connecting.”
In the same way Bublé tips his hat to Bennett—the man born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926 in Astoria, Queens—the icon acknowledges his debt to the musicians he refers to as his masters: Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. “They were 10 years older than I was,” says Bennett. “They were the ones who made me say, ‘Someday I’d like to be like that.’ And those records, you play them today, and they don’t sound dated. Nat King Cole singing ‘Lush Life’—it’s gorgeous. Same with Sinatra and ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’—that’ll never get old-fashioned. It’ll be good 30 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, because it was made that well. I just wanted to stay away from obsolescence. If I do something, I want it to be top quality. And I feel very satisfied with my career that way.”
How could he not? This year’s Grammy nominations could add to a mantel already heavy with awards, including a Record of the Year win in 1962 for Bennett’s signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” as well as an Album of the Year statue for his 1995 MTV Unplugged set. In 2001, The Recording Academy bestowed him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor he says still stirs him.
“The Grammys have been fantastic for me,” says Bennett. “I’ve had a beautiful life because of them. Each year, I’ve been at the top of my game [at the Grammys], and they’ve kicked up publicity for the next season and kept me going for many years. It’s pretty wonderful.” Beyond the thrill of victory, the singer says the ceremony offers an incomparable networking opportunity. “It’s the best convention in the entertainment world,” he says with a laugh. “You run into everybody in the business—not only the performers, but also the producers and record executives. It’s a circus.” That’s been especially true, Bennett adds, for the shows held inside the Grammys’ current home, Downtown LA’s Staples Center. “It was a little more intimate” at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where the awards were last handed out in 1998, he says. “But the one in LA is tremendous. It feels like the whole world is there.”
Amy Winehouse’s last recording was “Body and Soul” with Bennett, which garnered them a Grammy nomination
|Grooming by Kim Serratore|
|Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett after recording “The Lady Is a Tramp” for Duets II|
|Bennett at the Copacabana in 1988|
Asked to single out a particularly meaningful Grammy memory, Bennett’s voice hushes slightly. “I met Amy Winehouse’s father,” he says, “and he told me a story that really touched me.” In 2008, Bennett and Natalie Cole presented the Record of the Year award to Winehouse for her song “Rehab.” “She went crazy, and her father told me that it wasn’t because she won a Grammy but because Tony Bennett announced it,” he continues. “Later she told me that personally. She said, ‘I couldn’t believe you came out and mentioned my name, and the whole world heard it.’ She was so adorable.”
As befits an artist whose timelessness has kept him ahead of the curve, Bennett’s warmest Grammy recollections actually concern the annual MusiCares Person of the Year benefit, traditionally held on the Friday night before the ceremony itself. “That’s the one thing I love more than anything,” he says of the gala, which every year honors a musician for his or her philanthropic work. (This year’s honoree is Sir Paul McCartney; Bennett himself was fêted in 1995.) “I loved the one with Elton John [in 2000],” he says. “Backstage, Elton was kissing everybody who was coming out on stage. So I walked to the microphone and said, ‘I’ve just been kissed by Elton John— and I liked it.’” Bennett laughs, “It broke everybody up.”
Bennett: A Smooth Operator
You get a sense of Bennett’s effortless way with an audience from Live at the Sahara: From This Moment On, a previously unreleased concert included in Sony Legacy’s lavish new Bennett box set, Tony Bennett - The Complete Collection. Recorded in Las Vegas in 1964, Live at the Sahara documents the singer’s Sin City debut in all its toe-tapping glory. (Bennett aficionados are advised to fast forward to a bit of vintage banter in which he tells the crowd that anyone who speaks into the microphone is entitled to a royalty.) As its title suggests, Tony Bennett - The Complete Collection rounds up Bennett’s full Columbia catalog of 52 albums, as well as early-’50s singles, three DVDs, and a handful of records issued by other labels. It’s a weighty set—in both senses of the word—and one Bennett says he was delighted to help assemble.
“I can tell you honestly there’s not one song in there—from 1950 to now—where I would wince if someone heard it,” he insists, singling out his two mid-’70s collaborations with jazz pianist Bill Evans as particular favorites. “There’s nothing I regret doing.”
Listeners know the excellence of Bennett’s work is largely attributable to his charming, easygoing performances. But the singer himself is quick to credit his material: the immortal songs of such top-line tunesmiths as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George and Ira Gershwin. “You do a song like the one I did with Lady Gaga [on Duets II], ‘The Lady Is a Tramp’—that’s Rodgers & Hart,” he says. “That’s not an old song—that’s a great song! I’m sure that 35 or 50 years from now, these songs are gonna be called America’s classical music. They’ll never die.” Bennett goes on: “I’ve traveled in China, Japan, Australia, and Europe, and they all know these songs. They know, ‘Night and day/You are the one,’” he says, breaking into the Cole Porter classic. “They know, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me.’ I love the fact America has given the world its best popular music.”
And the world has loved Tony Bennett for his part in it, a starring role that stretches from this year’s Grammys all the way back to his days as a World War II veteran studying at New York’s American Theatre Wing on the G.I. Bill of Rights. “The one thing they taught me in that school is to always sing great songs,” he says. “Always do the best, the best, the best. That was a tough lesson, because when I graduated, it was the opposite. The commercial world was saying, ‘We’re just trying to make a quick buck.’ I’d run into singers I went to school with and they’d say, ‘I got turned down on Broadway.’ I’d say, ‘How come? You’re a great singer.’ ‘Well, they’re not taking good singers right now.’” Bennett pauses. “I stayed with the fact you should always respect the audience. Don’t cheat them. Give them the best you can. And it paid off.”
photography by kelsey bennett (lady gaga); Don Hunstein courtesy of columbia records (copacabana, spotlight); arnold newman (kansas city); kelsey bennett (winehouse)