Tony Bennett will turn 80 on Aug. 3, and while he doesn't think of longevity just in marketing terms, he's happy to have a son who does. It was 15 years ago that Danny Bennett rescued his father from pop-culture oblivion by pairing him with younger stars — k.d. lang, the Red Hot Chili Peppers — on a succession of red carpets, nudging ol' Tone's style toward MTV without sacrificing his half-century of musical substance. Tony has been flying on the fumes of hipness ever since, and Danny sees the big eight-O as the perfect moment for another boost of publicity rocket fuel. "I've had my eye on this since his 75th," says the younger Bennett. "Most people's concept of 80 is you can't get up the stairs, but Tony still sings like he's 20, and he has fans of all ages. You bet we're going to remind people of that."
The coming months will see a Tony Bennett feature documentary, executive-produced by Clint Eastwood, and a prime-time NBC special directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago). Bennett, who in conversation sounds like he's smiling even on the rare occasions when he's not, has nothing but exclamation points for Eastwood ("A class fella!") and Marshall ("Best director I've ever worked with!"). Initially, though, he had no interest in making the album that is at the center of his booming birthday industry, Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic, due out Sept. 26. "I was apprehensive," says Bennett. "I lean toward jazz, but jazz doesn't sell records. Dan's idea was collaborations on my greatest hits with contemporary artists who are institutions — Streisand, Elvis Costello, Bono. I told him I'd do it, but on certain terms."
Except for a few wrinkles and a head of silvery, cotton-ball hair, Bennett doesn't look particularly old. He is, however, deeply old school. He calls Elton John a "new" artist and refers to his girlfriend as "my special lady." (That his special lady is 40 years younger upholds another show-biz tradition.) Bennett is at his most reactionary when it comes to making music. Since 1970's disastrous Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, which featured a Shatneresque take on Eleanor Rigby, he has clung to the great American songbook and insisted on recording with live musicians. If he's doing a duet, he wants his partner singing with him live on a single take — an almost unheard-of level of fussiness in an era when voices are spliced and diced and singers collaborate from different continents. "It's not just putting on a tuxedo, grabbing one of those old microphones and putting it on the album cover," says Costello. "With Tony, you've got to be there and have some curiosity about the music. You've got to learn his method."
In all, 18 acts — including Bono, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and the Dixie Chicks — tinkered with their schedules and submitted to Bennett's requirements. (A love for Bennett's voice was a driving factor, though the success of Ray Charles]' multiplatinum, Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company was a compelling model of the benefits of synergy.) But singing à deux can be a tricky business. "Duets are blind dates," says Bennett. "You meet people, often for the first time, and then you've got to get close enough to them to get at the soul of a song. We're trying for instant intimacy. You never know if you're going to get it."
Sure enough, Bennett, while a warm and enthusiastic paramour, is not a patient one. "You don't get more than three takes," laughs Costello after recording "Are You Havin' Any Fun?" (and watching his wife Diana Krall record "The Best Is Yet to Come") at Bennett's Englewood, N.J., studio. After three takes of "Cold, Cold Heart," the Hank Williams song Bennett took to No. 1 in 1951, producer Phil Ramone asks Tim McGraw, "You want one more?" McGraw, who can't stop confessing his nerves, says, "I want 20 more." Bennett looks momentarily ill. "If Tim wants to do 20 more, we'll do 20 more!" he chirps, adding, "That was a good one, though."
Some of Bennett's need for speed is the product of a Depression-era upbringing. "The studio isn't a clubhouse," he says. "We're here to work." But it's also a critical part of his process. "Singing intimately is almost like thinking into a microphone, so it helps to have the song buried inside you." Like a method actor, Bennett goes over lyrics for days — even for songs he has sung forever — repeating them until they're second nature. When the time comes to record, the words pour out with different emphases on each take. (On "Cold, Cold Heart," the shift from a brisk apart to a drawn-out uhhhh-part tips the mood from disdain to misery.) The advantage is that his performances are spontaneous and deeply felt; the disadvantage is that each one exhausts him. So Bennett values focus and speed in his partners, and the fact that it took Elton John just 31 minutes to exit his limo, record Rags to Riches and return to his limo is mentioned around the studio as if it were a historic sexual conquest.
Bennett's technique can be a little imposing. So can the presence of four guys with live instruments. When Billy Joel peers over his microphone and sees the Ralph Sharon Quartet, he says, "Live instrumentation? So if we f___ up, they got to do it again and again? Ho boy. I haven't had a drink in a year, but right now, I really want a cocktail." McGraw says simply, "Uh, I've never done this before." (He does have a cocktail.) Once a duet partner gets used to the live instruments, there's the vocal to reckon with. "You don't want to sound like you're doing an impersonation," says Costello, "especially since he'd be the best person to copy and he's standing right here." Still, all three end up slipping into imitation. "Am I doing Tony too much?" Joel asks the control room after a take of "The Good Life." "I'm trying not to." Pause. "I could do Frank."
Bennett: "How about yourself?"
Joel: "I don't know who that is."
Bennett: "Well, I'm not a psychiatrist."
Joel cracks up, then nails his take. "He likes to work fast, but he's not ignorant of chemistry," says Joel. "We got that banter going, and that helps you feel the song."
"The Good Life" is sung partly in unison; harmony has a different set of challenges. "He's actually got more breath than me," says McGraw. "I've got to figure out how to hold things longer and match up." Costello admits, "In a certain register I get very loud, and when you're trying to sing harmony — even with Tony just five feet away — there's a point after which I'll only hear myself. That's not a good thing, you know. You tend to remember the more intimate voice on a duet, not the screaming madman." Bennett doesn't like wasting time, but he bounces happily on his left heel while he and Costello discuss harmonics. "I've been doing these songs for 60 years," Bennett says, "so talking like this is good for me. You have to stay open to new possibilities, and everyone on this record has been so prepared. They've got valuable ideas."
Bennett and Costello decide to stand a little farther apart, and Bennett advises, "Don't worry about the dynamics. Sound how you want to sound because the contrast is the thing." Later, Costello says, "I would never have chosen this song in a million years. I'm more at home with ballads. But you do a swing tune, and you realize — it's a gas! If it isn't Hope and Crosby, maybe it's Hope and Dorothy Lamour."
That Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic is a throwback is the point, of course, but the intimacy it creates feels startlingly new. Stevie Wonder slides into "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" on a harmonica solo and laughs. Bennett does a bit of Jimmy Durante gruffness to balance McCartney's smoothness on "The Very Thought of You." Costello and Bennett ask "Are You Havin' Any Fun?" and sound like they genuinely are. What sticks with you is the sound of two famous voices getting to know each other, even if the encounter lasts only a few minutes. "Some of the people on the album, like the Dixie Chicks and John Legend, told me they're thinking about making their next albums this way," says Bennett. "I hope they do. We should never get to a place where we forget the power of beautiful voices and a beautiful song." It's the kind of thing that sells itself.