“Always do two things instead of one” was the advice bestowed upon a young Tony Bennett by Duke Ellington. Bennett took it to heart and says that he paints every day. “I’ve had a passion to sing and paint all my life. If I get burned out from singing, I paint … it’s uplifting,” says the legendary crooner. Clearly this approach is working. Today his artwork hangs in the Smithsonian and he’s celebrating his 80th birthday with a wonderful new album: Duets: An American Classic.
Duets marks Bennett’s 106th album and despite all the accolades, fame and fortune, the debonair singer is as down to earth as they come. It’s a rare pleasure to meet a man who’s really got it. A recent performance at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara, and another at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival a little later, prove that he’s still got what it takes to make women swoon. Duets pairs Bennett with an eclectic mix of vocalists ranging from country’s Dixie Chicks to R&B’s John Legend to pop star George Michael. Seventeen artists from such diverse genres as pop, rock, jazz, country and R&B are featured. Among them are superstars such as Sting, Bono, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Paul McCartney.
The latest record is a product of Bennett’s impeccable singing style and his son Danny’s business acumen. Danny Bennett, the brains behind the re-launch of Tony Bennett’s career in the late 1980s, played a major role in this new record.
Each artist performed live with Bennett in studios in New York, Los Angeles and London. What was it like to work with such an array of talent? “Wonderful. I didn’t know what to expect. It was my son’s idea. These are all big, multi-talented artists of today. Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, those were my masters. And I was shocked to learn that these stars viewed me that way,” the reluctant role model says with a laugh. “At first I was apprehensive about how the album would be made because they all play so differently than I perform. It was not predictable because each does something a little different. It was fun. We spoke to each other [during the recording], like a casual jam session. I was impressed by how prepared and professional everyone was. Elton John did the song in just three takes. Danny photographed and filmed the sessions for a TV special. It’s interesting to hear how everyone feels about music these days. It’s a whole different thing now, the big stadium shows. I did small nightclubs.”
The album includes solid Canadian representation. Michael Bublé sings on “Just In Time”; Diana Krall on “The Best Is Yet to Come” and k.d. lang makes her mark on “Because of You”. “k.d. lang is my best friend in the music world. Every time I do something with k.d. it becomes a big hit. Diana and Elvis were just great friends,” says Bennett with remarkable warmth.
I was curious to know what an original like Tony Bennett thought of contemporary crooner Michael Bublé and as it turns out he thinks they have a lot in common. “He’s doing it the right way. I learned from Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, travelling from town to town performing. Michael is following the same technique. You should entertain, make the audience forget their problems and have them walk out happy.”
Bennett is now sharing his knowledge with young people through a school he founded in New York City, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, in his childhood neighbourhood of Astoria, Queens. Imagine founding a school and naming it after your friend and mentor rather than yourself. It’s pure Tony Bennett. His longtime love Susan Crowe, an educator, is assistant principal. “The school is a public school. You should see the work they are doing. They performed at the United Nations for Mandela. They’re graduating to schools like Juilliard. When you see them, artists, dancers and musicians, you shake your head,” Bennett says with pride.
“I think about how much I learned being on the road. You learn from the public what to do, what to leave out. Young kids don’t have that today. I thought they needed a school to learn it. They perform for the community so they can see how it will be outside. We also teach them academically so they can get through college,” he adds.
What does he listen to at home? “I love Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Love it! I just know as a performer that those artists will never sound dated. Fifty or five hundred years from now.” Tony Bennett’s distinctive style and relaxed tenor will certainly be enjoyed alongside his personal favourites for as long as we continue to listen.
Photo courtesy of Sony BMG Music.