When you think of American classics, you might think of baseball, Abe Lincoln, apple pie ... and Anthony Dominick Benedetto. That's Tony Bennett to you.
Bennett has released more than 70 albums in a career that spans 60 years. His latest is Duets II, on which he collaborates with Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, John Mayer, Amy Winehouse, Natalie Cole, Lady Gaga and others. Bennett recently stopped by NPR's studios to perform a few songs — but before he did, he spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon, who began by asking how the singer chose the new album's roster of talent.
"My son has been managing me for many, many years, and he chose all of the contemporary artists. I honestly didn't know most of them," Bennett says. "I guess their parents told them about me — or their grandparents."
Bennett says the sessions were full of surprises, like Lady Gaga's extreme courtesy and professionalism.
"She went around to everybody that had anything to do with setting it up — the microphones, or whatever — and thanked them all for being so nice to her."
But it was Amy Winehouse, Bennett says, whose performance and personality touched him the most.
"She was as great as Ella or Billie Holiday," Bennett says of the late soul singer, who died this summer after a long and public struggle with alcohol and drugs. "She had the whole gift.
"When Elvis Presley came along, the whole music business world changed into big stadiums. The art of intimacy was gone," Bennett says. "I kept listening, saying, 'Let me hear a singer!' I want to hear a Nat Cole, I want to hear a Sinatra, I want to hear a Jo Stafford or Ella Fitzgerald. [Winehouse] was the first one that came along, of all the young ladies, that actually had the gift."
Bennett traces the "art of intimacy" back to Bing Crosby, who he says set a standard for generations of crooners. But while he still reveres Crosby and his vocal descendants, Frank Sinatra in particular, Bennett says he's never tried to emulate them — a tip he got from his old vocal coach, Mimi Speer.
"She told me, 'Never imitate another singer. Listen to musicians, and find out how they phrase and how they feel about a song, and imitate them. If you imitate another singer, you'll just be one of the chorus.' Very good advice," Bennett says.
It may be that commitment to individuality that's kept Tony Bennett a commercial success all these years. As for what's kept him creatively active, he says his secret is simple.
"I love life," Bennett says. "I wish I could communicate to the whole planet what a gift it is to be alive."
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