“I’ll never retire,” says Tony Bennett. Truly, the 85-year-old singer does not seem close to slowing down: his album Duets II recently made him the oldest living artist ever to top the Billboard pop album charts. He did it with help from such singing partners as Lady Gaga, Aretha Franklin, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones and the late Amy Winehouse, the latter in her last known studio recording ("Body and Soul"). The album has since been nominated for three Grammys and its recording sessions are the subject of the PBS documentary Great Performances: Tony Bennett: Duets II, which premieres on the channel on Friday, January 27.
Bennett announced the television special late last week at a gathering of the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, California. It followed a half-hour set of Bennett's euphoric, recognizable tunes from the Great American Songbook; during George and Ira Gershwin's "They All Laughed," Bennett spun around with a warm smile and finished the song with a booming, "Who's got the last laugh now?" After the show, he paused backstage with a glass of wine and his son/manager Danny to chat with Rolling Stone about his Duets II collaborators, substance abuse among musicians and his own enduring pop success.
How do you feel when you step offstage?
Every show is different. The public has always been nice to me. I’m fortunate that way.
Your first Grammy was for 1962’s "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," but you’ve had a tidal wave of awards since the 1990s.
Each time, it’s good. John Lennon said in an interview once that the Beatles had a terrible time when it hit so fast. And that happened to me when I was young. Pearl Bailey started me out and put me in Greenwich Village with her. She had a lot of belief in me. She said, "Now, son, everything’s going to be good for you, but look out for the helium in the brain." Looking back at that many years later, she was so clear, and yet it had me spin out whenever I had the first big success. You get lost.
How is it now?
The fact that I have a hit record at 85 – I’ve been through the mill so much that I can take it. I know just what’s going to happen. I know what’s bad about it and what’s good about it, and I don’t have any entourage or bodyguards and all that, so the fact that it’s happening this way is wonderful. It’s an amazing experience to understand who you are and have something go Number One on Billboard throughout the world. I started hearing we were platinum in Australia and Spain and Paris – wow, what’s going on? It feels wonderful.
What do you like about doing the Duets albums?
The first one [in 2006] was gigantic with Barbra Streisand and Elton John and Paul McCartney and all that. These are all new kids [on Duets II]. What I liked about them was they all came out of schools: Berklee School of Music, Julliard. John Mayer is a great blues singer, and he is a very tall guy and he could be a great movie star. I was really surprised at Queen Latifah, because originally she was a rap singer. They are not going to be forgotten. They are very, very highly competent.
How was working with Lady Gaga on "The Lady Is a Tramp"?
She came in so prepared and so knowledgeable about what to do. She’s as good as Ella Fitzgerald or anybody you want to come up with. And that’s without her dancing and her philosophies about breaking myths that are incorrect and social situations. She’s very strong. I know it sounds way out, but she could become America’s Picasso if they leave her alone and let her just do what she has to do. She is very, very talented.
And a sharp dresser.
Yeah, she’s far out, but in the meantime she’s also one hell of a good singer. She’s great at piano and she dances wonderful. She’s got it all.
You also keep coming back to k.d. lang, this time for "Blue Velvet."
I love her. Singing is a gift. It’s even hard to describe. It’s just someone who knows how to do it. She knows how to sing, whatever song it is. We worked in Australia with her, and she is one of the toughest acts I ever had to follow. The audience loves her. She’s a natural.
Were you confident that everyone you invited to be on Duets II would be able to deliver at that level?
I didn’t know until it happened. One thing Danny came up with is, he said, "Why shouldn’t we go to them instead of them coming to us?" That was a wonderful thing. From one corner of the world, we traveled to Pisa for Andrea Bocelli, we went to Amy Winehouse at Abbey Road Studios, back to New York with Lady Gaga.
Before Amy Winehouse died, you had planned on seeing her again.
Because of my 85th birthday, the BBC did a television special for me from the Palladium and I wanted her on that show. Right after the [Duets II recording] date, I said, "I’m going to talk to her and tell her to cool it, because she’s going to destroy herself. I’m going to talk her out of it." When [Danny] called me up and told me she died, I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t look that ill when we recorded that day. She was absolutely sober that day. That’s why I felt that I could help her.
You’ve seen this happen many times over the decades.
Believe me, I’ve met so many people that were geniuses but were hooked on heroin. They told me that they hated it. One person told me, "I wish the first time I stuck a needle in my arm somebody would have hit me and knocked me out so it would never happen again. It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me." These people have a touch of genius in them, and yet they were hooked. It’s that dangerous.
Have there been recent songs added to what's called the Great American Songbook?
Stephen Sondheim. But what happened in the United States in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s: you had the greatest composers from Broadway and from movies, and they wrote the best songs. Those songs are not old. They will live on forever. No country in the world has ever given the rest of the world that much great music. What’s the Number One hit in Sweden? I don’t know. What’s the Number One hit in Germany? I don’t know. But I travel all over the world, and they love all those Fred Astaire songs.
You mentioned plans for recording an entire album with Stevie Wonder.
We’ve been talking about it for years. Sooner or later we’ll do it.