There’s a certain irony in Tony Bennett being involved with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) for several events during the past couple of years.
The guy is anything but retired.
Bennett, who turned 85 earlier this month, 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’s won 15 Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and has released more than 100 albums with a new release, “Duets II,” coming in September. And he’s already recorded its follow-up.
So what’s his message to the retired persons?
“I want to tell those retirees to retire to ... what?” Bennett (nee Benedetto) says with a laugh by telephone from his painting studio in his native New York City.
“What’s humorous to me when we talk about retiring is 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.”
And, Bennett is quick to note, he plays to more than just his contemporaries these days — and has been for quite some time.
“Well, I just play to the audience. I never think about demographics, the young and old,” he explains. “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. I never worked just for a demographic group, you know?”
Nothing underscores Bennett’s appeal to fans and admirers of all ages than the lineup on the upcoming “Duets II,” which will be released on Sept. 20. It follows 2006’s “Duets: An American Classic” and Bennett acknowledges that he had no plans to make a sequel — until it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than three million copies worldwide.
“I had no idea the first one was going to be that big,” he notes. “The sales were so phenomenal that I was almost strangled by Sony Columbia (his label). ... Actually, they said, ‘Please do another one like that.’ They were very nice about it.
“But,” he adds, “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 icons (Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Andrea Bocelli) to upstarts (Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, Josh Groban, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood) and those in between, including Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow and others.
But even with that potent lineup, the album has additional notoriety for Bennett’s rendition of “Body and Soul” with the late Amy Winehouse, which he’s planning to release as the second single from “Duets II” — following “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with Michael Bublé — in September. Proceeds will likely be earmarked for the foundation 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 EMI’s 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.”
Bennett says he had provided some counsel to Winehouse prior to the recording sessions, when she and her father, Mitch Winehouse, came to see him perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “I was convinced I would be able to help her and talk her out of ... taking drugs,” he notes, adding that the foundation is “a great way to turn something positive out of this.”
Bennett says all of his duet partners came to the project in top form. “I can’t tell you how professional every one of them was, and how they worked and memorized and knew what they were going to do,” he says. “And it shows up on the record, you know? You can hear them performing very well for us.”
He proclaims he’s “never met a more talented person in my life” than Lady Gaga, who duets with Bennett on “The Lady is a Tramp.” “I think she’s going to become as big as Elvis Presley,” he predicts. And Bennett says John Mayer, who joins him on “One For My Baby,” is “a very talented guy and a great blues singer. He knew how to improvise real well, and we turned it into a fun record.”
All of the “Duets II” sessions were filmed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe and will be released as both online content and as a making-of documentary, while Bennett’s son and manager Danny is also working on a feature film called “The Zen of Tony Bennett” that captures the conversations between Bennett and his duet partners. “It’s going to be a very in-depth film,” Danny Bennett says.
The singer, meanwhile, is in the midst of a busy period that will see him playing New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and the Staples Center in Los Angeles, both in September and likely with guests from both “Duets” albums. A massive, career-spanning box set is also due out this fall, and Bennett has recorded an album of Jerome Kern songs that should see release in 2012.
All in all, it’s making for pretty good 85th birthday celebration for Bennett — in fact, “the best one I’ve ever had” according to the singer.
“I really can’t believe I’m still here, doing this,” he says. “I’m very healthy, and I had good teachers and they taught me how to stay in shape, and I’m in shape and people love all the shows that we put on with my wonderful jazz quartet.
“And I just count my blessings every day. I can’t believe that I’m so fortunate.”
Tony Bennett on the Queen of Soul
Tony Bennett wanted her to sing another song for his upcoming “Duets II” album. But like many before him, he decided it was wiser to heed the desires of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
“Originally I wanted her to sing ‘Lost in the Stars,’ the Kurt Weill song,” Bennett recalls. “And (Franklin) said, ‘No, I want to do “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.”’ And it was a good choice that she made.”
Bennett was already an established star at Columbia Records when the Bloomfield Hills-based Franklin, 69, signed to the label in 1960. He, like the rest of the world, was concerned about her health after she underwent still-unspecified surgery in December, but Bennett was pleased to find her in good shape when they recorded together.
“She was very, very professional,” he recalls. “She’s in top shape after her recent surgery. She looks great. She sounds great. She is such a good musician; she understands music intimately, and you can hear that on the record. She was very prepared and knew exactly what to do, so it was a real pleasure.”
Tony Bennett performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $55-$85. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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