Tony Bennett Courts Latin Music Stars for 'Viva Duets' Album

'I just can't believe that at 86, I feel beautiful about life,' says the singer

tony bennett
Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images
Tony Bennett appears on the 'Today' show.
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"I'm fortunate and blessed," says Tony Bennett of Viva Duets, his just-released set featuring some of music's biggest Latin stars, including Christina Aguilera on "Steppin' Out With My Baby"and Mexican superstar Vicente Fernandez on "Return to Me."

Bennett isn't stopping there – he's already finished a back-to-basics LP and is planning a jazz record with Lady Gaga. Says Bennett, "I just have different ideas about different things, and they just happen."

How did you get into Latin music?
Well, I've always liked it. I used to upset record companies, because they'd [say] "Why don't you do rap?" or "Why don't you do disco?" Whatever the fashion was at the moment. And I say no, I'm committed to just singing very good songs, and that's what I do. And what I like about the Latin music is that you get to feel the soul that's coming out of the singers performing. That's what happens on this album. You know, the songs that I did, when they translated them over to the Spanish language, you could hear the emotion. And each one sounds different, but they all have so much feeling. So I'm very happy with the way the album came out. 

Did you travel around like with the last Duets record?
Absolutely. We went to Spain, Mexico, everywhere. I love it. What I love is the feeling from the Latino [community] so much. They're so happy, you know . . . because this year at the Grammys, they eliminated the Latin [jazz category]. So I decided to show them that they are accepted, and so it all worked out very well. You know, it was really not my idea – it was my son Danny's idea to do a Latin album. Originally, I said "Why?" You know? But I had no idea it would be something this phenomenal, because the reaction I'm getting from all the Latinos, they can't believe that I'm helping them. And it feels so beautiful, you know? 

What music is impressing you today?
I'm really a jazz lover. I love classical music, too, but I love the real jazz artists, you know? To me, they're the ones whose music really lasts forever. They're the ones that knock me out, the real jazz artists. I never went for the quick buck in the business, you know. When I came out of the service in World War II, under the G.I. Bill we were allowed to make up our schooling we had missed during the war, and I joined the American Theatre Wing. And all the teachers in that wonderful school taught "only sing quality." Stay with quality. If you're an actor, only go with Tennessee Williams and some of the great writers. If you're a singer, only sing Cole Porter, Jerome Kern. Even though it's not contemporary, it lasts forever. That music lasts forever. When you hear Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole or Sinatra, you realize it's never going to die. It's never going to sound dated.

Is there anyone now that you think could be remembered that way?
Oh, yeah. There's Sting. There's Diana Krall. There's a lot. Michael Bublé is going to be, in his own way, a new Louis Prima. He entertains the people in a nice way.

Do you have any other big goals for the next few years?
Absolutely. I just have different ideas about different things, and they just happen when they come about. I did an album that still hasn't been released yet, but it's called A Quiet Thing, and I did it with just a guitar and a bass and it's very understated, but it's beautiful, with Gray Sargent on the guitar, who's a master. And we did good songs, like and "Sweet Sue, Just You," which I dedicated to my wife, and "A Quiet Thing," a very beautiful song.

You've been been performing for more than 60 years. Is that ever hard to comprehend?
I'm so fortunate and blessed with the fact that we just played for the two and a half months. We went to Norway and Sweden and Paris and Germany and Italy and Spain and sold out and great reviews everywhere, unanimous. And from there we went all through Canada. I mean, I just can't believe that at 86, you know, I just feel beautiful about life, you know?

What are you still getting out of it?
Contentment. I just love what I do, you know. I also paint every day. I'm totally involved in the arts, and my wife and I, we started schools in my hometown, Astoria, the Sinatra School, which is so successful that now we've gone on to 14 schools in New York City boroughs, and we support the performing arts in every public school in New York.