Tony Bennett has embraced turning 80 with that mixture of easygoing graciousness and ebullient optimism that has sustained him through a career as an entertainer spanning seven decades.
"I'm 80 and I can't believe it's the best year I've ever had," said Bennett, sitting in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park where he's temporarily living while his nearby apartment is remodeled.
"I couldn't ask for more than I have," said the silver-haired Bennett, in that raspy voice so familiar from his recordings. "But I still have so much to learn ... how to perform better, to paint better."
Bennett has used his birthday celebrations to raise funds to support the public high school he founded in September 2001, the Frank Sinatra School for the Performing Arts, in his home borough of Queens, which he sees as his living legacy to nurture future generations of artists.
On the coffee table, Bennett has his watercolors and a sketch of several dancers. He’s adapting it from a photograph of a dance number from his upcoming NBC special (airing Nov. 21), directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) who made a series of short films depicting highlights of his career.
The TV special will reprise duet performances by Bennett with Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall and others from his just released CD, "Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic."
Bennett, in his modest manner, says he's flattered that stars from across the musical spectrum — from Paul McCartney and Billy Joel to the Dixie Chicks and Juanes — interrupted their busy schedules to record with him.
"They're all giants in the industry, and all of a sudden they're saying to me you're the master," said Bennett. "That's how I felt about Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat Cole."
Bennett, who turned 80 on Aug. 3, admits he had some apprehensions when his son and manager, Danny, suggested the duets record. He insisted on recording the tracks in the studio with each duet partner rather than rely on long-distance, multitrack wizardry.
"I've always worked that way ... for the spontaneity and freshness of an honest performance," said Bennett.
R&B singer John Legend said his duet with Bennett gave him the confidence to record several tracks with his band without multitracking for his upcoming CD, "Once Again."
"I knew from doing it with Tony that it would work," said the 27-year-old Legend, who recorded the gospel-influenced "Sing You Sinners" with Bennett in Los Angeles right after he won the Grammy for best new artist and Bennett took home his 13th career Grammy.
"I think what's remarkable about Tony's career is that he's always picked great songs to cover, and he's great at phrasing and interpreting those songs and bringing them to life," Legend said.
In an interview, Bennett reflected on some of the songs from his new CD which are linked with career milestones, people who influenced him or reflect his outlook on life:
"Rags to Riches" (with Elton John)The song's title reminds Bennett of his rise from humble origins. The son of an Italian immigrant grocer, Anthony Dominick Benedetto grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, across the river from the towers of Manhattan, where he now lives.
BENNETT: We grew up during the Depression. ... My father died when I was 10 years old and my mother who was a seamstress had to raise three children. But I had a beautiful family of Italian-Americans that were so wonderful to my mother. Her sisters and brothers would bring their families around every Sunday and make a circle around my brother, sister and myself. ... They had so much fun being entertained by us.
I've never lost that philosophy. I love the performers like Louis Armstrong or Jimmy Durante because they did the same kind of thing, they made everybody feel good. ... The whole country is obsessed with being told that they have to fear this and that, and if I can entertain people and make them forget their problems, it's very gratifying for me. ...
I have enough. I don't understand how some people can have billions of dollars. If you have one billion dollars you could buy anything ... I don't understand someone having 39 billion dollars. Give it out to the poor.
"The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (with Sting)
/"Because of You" (with k.d. lang)Bob Hope discovered Bennett in a Greenwich Village club in 1949 and invited the young singer to tour with him. The comedian also persuaded him to change his stage name to Tony Bennett. Columbia's A&R chief Mitch Miller signed the singer and released his first single in 1950.
BENNETT: These are the two songs that got me going in the record business. ... `Boulevard of Broken Dreams' was a semi-hit but it was just enough to get me jobs in little clubs in Boston, Buffalo and Cleveland. ... `Because of You' was a big, big hit for me. It was No. 1 on the Billboard charts for weeks. ...That really kicked me into the big time. ... the Paramount Theater in New York doing seven shows a day.
"Cold, Cold Heart" (with Tim McGraw)Bennett turned this Hank Williams song into a No. 1 hit on the pop charts in 1951.
BENNETT: When Mitch Miller showed me the song, I said, `This is a great song, but I'm a city boy and I wouldn't know how to sing a country song.' He said, `If I have to tie you to a tree, you're going to sing this song.' ... I never regretted it. Years ago country music just sold in the Bible Belt. ... This was the first country song that sold internationally. Hank Williams called me up and said, `What's the idea of ruining my song?' ... That was his country humor. I look at Hank like Billie Holiday in Harlem. They were the people's singers. ...
"Are You Havin' Any Fun?" (with Elvis Costello)Bennett recorded this song on his groundbreaking 1958 album "Basie Swings, Bennett Sings," which showcased his jazz side.
BENNETT: My biggest influence is jazz. At the end of the Second World War, I became a librarian for the Armed Forces Network and I used to sing with this big orchestra, and the first record I ever made was `St. James Infirmary Blues.' .... Jazz is one of the most creative things ever to come out of the United States because it's elongated improvisation.
I was the first white guy to sing with Count Basie. ... It was a big innovation at that time. ... Basie just knew how to play the right tempo. He taught me and all of the musicians that less is more. ...
"I Left My Heart In San Francisco" (with pianist Bill Charlap)Originally released as the B side on a single in 1962, the song earned Bennett his first two Grammys.
BENNETT: We were in Little Rock, Ark., and were about to go to San Francisco for the first time. Ralph Sharon (Bennett's pianist-musical director) saw some sheet music in his shirt drawer that someone had given him and it said, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Ralph thought it would be good material ... for San Francisco. We were rehearsing and the bartender in the club in Little Rock said, "If you record that song I'm going to be the first one to buy it. " ... It became my institutional song to this day. ...
The greatest thing that ever happened to me as an entertainer was hearing how the soldiers waiting to come home from Vietnam were sitting around the fire and singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" because when they came home they'd have to come through San Francisco. Even today because of the Iraqi war, every time I sing ...`When I come home to you San Francisco,' I think of the boys coming home. I hope they're better treated than the soldiers that came back from Vietnam. ...
"How Do You Keep the Music Playing" (with George Michael)
Bennett recorded this song for his 1986 comeback album for Columbia, "The Art of Excellence." It has since become his closing number.
BENNETT: I was at the Universal Amphitheater and Frank Sinatra sang this. ... Right in the middle of this quiet, beautiful ballad, he said in a voluminous way, "Tony sing this song for everybody." That blew me out of my seat. ...
Sinatra was my master. When I first met him, I was very nervous and went to see him backstage at the Paramount Theater. ... I said how do I eliminate being frightened on the stage and he said the public will help you, don't worry about that. ... He also taught me don't ever do cheap songs, just do great songs. ... Sinatra was the one who said I was his favorite singer and really changed my career. ... He helped me an awful lot throughout my life.
"I Want to Be Around" (with Bono)
This song was featured on Bennett's 1994 "MTV Unplugged" album which introduced him to a new generation.
BENNETT: My son Dan was responsible for getting me on MTV, and it was the first time I just had a young audience around me. I just did what I normally do to any audience and it won the album-of-the-year Grammy. ...
"The Best Is Yet to Come" (with Diana Krall)
This standard reflects Bennett's optimistic take on life.
BENNETT: People have to stop worrying. It's not good for you. Stress is a killer. ... It was Duke Ellington who gave me the advice to do two things instead of one. I love to paint as much as I love to sing. ... It worked out to be such a blessing in my life because if I started getting burnt-out singing, instead of saying I got to take a vacation and get away from all this, I go to my painting and that's a big lift. And when I get burnt-out from painting, I go back to singing. So I stay in this creative zone at all times.