In his decades-long career, Tony Bennett has released more than 70 albums. Considering he just turned 85 in August, that works out to almost one album for each year of his life. But it wasn't until he released his Duets II album, featuring his greatest hits performed with marquee names such as Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban and more that he earned his first-ever No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, becoming the oldest living act to reach No. 1. Happy birthday, indeed.
Last month before the release of Duets II, I had the extraordinary opportunity to sit down with Tony Bennett in his art studio overlooking Central Park, where we discussed his experience recording "Body And Soul" with the late Amy Winehouse in the Abbey Road Studios in London just four months before her untimely death.
She was "someone who knows how to intuitively improvise and make it believable and sing with humanity and soul and honesty, no compromising... Amy had that gift," he said. "She was the only one of all of the contemporary artists that I've met through the years... She's the only one that was able to do it."
Sadly, poignantly, "Body And Soul" became a tribute to Amy instead of a tribute to an unabiding jazz torch song. But the 16 other duets on Duets II are a masterful, otherwise celebratory collection of jazz duets once considered pop songs, made timeless by Tony's unparalleled old-school bel canto, made new paired with artists such as Norah Jones and John Mayer.
Knowing that the days of big band recording sessions are gone, and today much contemporary music is recorded piecemeal, saved onto laptops, emailed and pieced together, enabling artists to record duets without even being in the same city, much less the same recording studio, I asked Tony about the recording process.
Read more and watch Tony Bennett's interview videos after the jump.
"We traveled throughout the world to each artist's recording studio -- Andrea Bocelli in Pisa, Italy, Amy Winehouse in Abbey Road Studios, Queen Latifah in L.A. in the Charlie Chaplin Studios. I was surprised that for young performers they walked in very prepared. They knew just what to do, and I like that," explained the consummate professional.
And I would've been remiss not to ask about his session recording "The Lady Is A Tramp" with Lady Gaga, one of the most internationally sensational, controversial and spectacularly famous artists on his Duets II roster. With Bennett being famous for more than half a century, I wanted to know if he had advice for Lady Gaga, who's been famous for less than half a decade but has experienced a level of international fame known in the pop world by the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna.
"I'd like her to become her own best friend," he said of Gaga. "The world loves her so much that she should respect herself as much as her fans love her. I hope that she never regrets anything in her life. She's such a sweet, professional person. I sense that there's gonna be an awful lot that she does.... When she does something, it's completely different than something else. She's always gonna do the unexpected. And that's the sign of a great artist. And she knows how to create in a very spontaneous way."
"Fame is strange," he reflected, referring to Lady Gaga's astronomical ascent. Bennett also shared his own experience of transforming into one of the 20th century's original pop stars. In 1949 his career took off when Bob Hope suggested he changed his name from Anthony Dominick Benedetto to Tony Bennett. "When you go all the way to the top like I think she's gonna go, there's a tendency for Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, so many different artists that get scratched down from being No. 1.... I wonder why the public can't stand someone who's better or bigger than anyone else."
But of all of the sage observations that Tony Bennett made on the music industry and the price and face of fame, it was his democratic, populist appeal and his belief that music belongs to everyone that made his No. 1 debut so fitting: "I never believed in demographics -- this is for the old people or the young people. I still don't understand it. I just play to people, whether they're little tiny children or way up in age like 85, like I am. I just like to play for everybody," he said.
TONY BENNETT ON RECORDING 'DUETS II'
TONY BENNETT ON BECOMING TONY BENNETT
TONY BENNETT ON LADY GAGA
TONY BENNETT ON MAKING MUSIC FOR EVERYONE