Rolling back the years

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Rolling back the years

THERE’S A CERTAIN irony in Tony Bennett having been involved with several American Association of Retired Persons events in the past couple of years.

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Published: Wed 28 Sep 2011, 10:08 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:18 AM

After all, this guy is anything but retired.

Bennett, who turned 85 in August, is in his seventh decade of recording, making him the longest-running artist on Columbia Records – and in all of music, for that matter. He has won 15 Grammys and sold more than 50 million records worldwide. His catalogue of more than 100 albums includes the new Duets II, and he has a career-spanning box set coming in November: Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection is a massive 73-CD, three-DVD overview of a career that continues to thrive.

So what message is he sending to the retired persons?

“I want to tell those retirees to retire to ... what?,” Bennett says with a laugh, speaking by telephone from his painting studio in New York. “What’s humorous to me, when we talk about retiring, is that when Elvis Presley came along and the Beatles and the whole thing, they came on like they were new and I was from the old school. And it hits me as so funny because now I’m 85, but the Beatles are all in their 60s and going into their 70s, so they’re not young anymore. But they’re still going too.”

Bennett is quick to note that he plays to more than merely his contemporaries these days, and has for quite some time.

“Well, I just play to the audience,” he says. “I never think about demographics, the young and old. I thought the biggest mistake the record companies ever made was when they split it up and said, ‘This is your music, and your parents like the other kind.’ I thought that was very ignorant, because you should play to everybody.

“Whoever wants to come and hear and listen, that’s an audience.”

IN THE BEGINNING

Bennett has followed that philosophy since 1946, when he was discharged from the U.S. Army, after serving in Germany on the front lines during World War II and during the postwar occupation, and used the G.I. Bill to enroll in the American Theatre Wing in New York. He studied the melodic bel-canto style of singing and adapted it for jazz, signing his first recording contract in 1949. That same year Pearl Bailey heard Bennett and invited him to support her in Greenwich Village, where Bob Hope caught his act and signed him to tour – and also suggested that he shorten his surname from Benedetto to Bennett.

The Hope gig led to Bennett’s deal at Columbia, where producer Mitch Miller took the young singer under his wing. His first number one hit was Because of You (1951), and soon Frank Sinatra was calling Bennett his favourite singer. Bennett went on to notch 20 Top 20 hits, including staples such as Cold, Cold Heart (1951), Stranger in Paradise (1953) and I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1962), before the Beatles arrived in 1964 and the British Invasion consigned Bennett and his peers to the lower rungs of the charts.

Even during the long heyday of rock ’n’ roll, however, Bennett remained popular and even, as the years rolled by, iconic. His 1994 appearance on MTV’s Unplugged series, with guests Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang, gave Bennett an unexpected beachhead in the alternative-rock market. His companion album went platinum and won a pair of Grammy Awards, including the coveted Album of the Year.

“It got the kids interested in Tony,” his son and manager, Danny Bennett, says in a separate interview. “They could see that he wasn’t this alien or museum piece.”

DYNAMIC DUO

Nothing more underscores Bennett’s appeal to fans and admirers of all ages than Duets II. It follows Duets: An American Classic (2006), and Bennett claims that he had no plans to make a sequel until the original debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than 3 million copies worldwide.

“I had no idea that the first one was going to be that big,” Bennett admits. “The sales were so phenomenal that I was almost strangled by Sony Columbia ... Actually they said, ‘Please do another one like that.’ They were very nice about it.

“But I won’t do another one, a third one.”

Like its predecessor, Duets II loads up on the star power, pairing Bennett with partners ranging from fellow icons Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson to the upstart likes of Lady Gaga, Josh Groban, Norah Jones, John Mayer and Carrie Underwood, as well as in-between artists including Andrea Bocelli, Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow and others.

Even with that potent lineup, however, the album has additional buzz due to Bennett’s rendition of Body and Soul with the late Amy Winehouse, which he released as Duets II’s second single – following Don’t Get Around Much Anymore with Michael Buble – in September. Proceeds from the single have been earmarked for a foundation that Winehouse’s family is setting up in her name to help young people in need of medical or financial assistance.

“It’s on film ... and I think it will surprise everybody as to how well we ended up getting along,” says Bennett, who recorded with Winehouse at Abbey Road Studios in London. “She was a little apprehensive about how to go about it, and I said to her, ‘I may be wrong, but it sounds like you’re influenced by Dinah Washington,’ and that just blew her mind. She just said, ‘Oh my God, you mean you can actually hear that? She’s my idol!’

“And that relaxed her, and that’s the record we ended up making.”

Prior to the recording sessions, Winehouse and her father came to see Bennett perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The older singer took the opportunity to offer Winehouse some advice.

“I was convinced that I would be able to help her and talk her out of ... taking drugs,” he says, adding that the foundation is “a great way to turn something positive out of this.”

He was impressed with all of his duet partners, Bennett says, and he attributes their excellence to today’s new emphasis on education.

“I must tell you that something good is happening,” says Bennett, who co-founded the Frank Sinatra School of Arts in New York. “The new artists are coming out of schools like the Berklee School of Music in Boston, the Juilliard School. Lady Gaga is from N.Y.U., and they’re teaching the performing arts to students and it’s a big help.”

SHOWTIME

Bennett supported Duets II with September shows at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In addition, all of the sessions were filmed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe for a making-of documentary, while Danny Bennett is also working on a feature film, to be called The Zen of Tony Bennett, that captures the conversations between Bennett and his duet partners.

All that, and Bennett’s next album, a set of Jerome Kern songs, should see release in 2012. All in all, it’s been a pretty special birthday celebration – in fact, the singer says, “the best one I’ve ever had.”

Gary Graff, The New York Times Syndicate



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