Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tony Bennett on Amy Winehouse: "She was an exceptional jazz singer, on the same level as Ella Fitzgerald"

Pop Quiz: Tony Bennett
by Aidin Vaziri - San Francisco Chronicle
December 11, 2011

This year, Tony Bennett turned 85 and scored his first No. 1 album ever. Not a bad start for the dapper New York singer, who has been at this for more than six decades. It helps that "Duets II," which made him the oldest living artist to top the Billboard 200, features collaborations with Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey and Amy Winehouse. But that's not all. It seems as if Bennett is intent on making Justin Bieber look like a slacker. There is also a new boxed set, "The Complete Collection," that brings together all 70-plus of his studio albums; plus another compilation of his most popular holiday songs, "Tony Bennett: The Classic Christmas Album." Not enough? He performs at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa on Friday.

Q: It feels like you're busier now than ever. Have you ever considered what your life would be like without music?

A: I started out as a singing waiter in Queens -- I would wait on tables and the customers would request a song and I would go back into the kitchen and if I didn't know the song there were two Irish chefs who would quickly teach me the song, and then I would run back to the table and sing the song. I always said if it didn't work out for me to have a professional career in the music business, that I would be perfectly happy to just continue being a singing waiter.

Q: You flew out to meet each of your guests to record the duet album -- from Pisa, Italy, with Andrea Bocelli to Mariah Carey's home studio. How much fun was it making this record?

A: We had a very good time as my family was with me -- my wife Susan, my sons Danny and Daegal, who produced the album with Phil Ramone, and my granddaughter Kelsey, who photographed all the sessions. So it was quite an adventure. Andrea Bocelli cooked us an incredible Italian lunch while we recorded at his home, and when I recorded with Mariah Carey it was like recording with a trio as she had twins in her belly at the time. We were in London at Abbey Road Studios when we recorded with Amy Winehouse and back in New York for Lady Gaga and Aretha Franklin. It was a six-month process to get all the recordings done.

Q: Was it a struggle to not out-sing some of your partners?

A: When singing becomes competitive, then it's not art. A duet should be a conversation. We kept the atmosphere in the studio very relaxed and casual so that everyone felt very much at ease so there was a proper involvement between myself and the duet guests.

Q: Amy Winehouse died a month after you recorded with her. Did you get a sense that her time was running out?

A: I knew she had her troubles, of course, but that day she was completely sober and it was such an encouraging session as she sang beautifully and it seemed like things were going in the right direction for her. She was an exceptional jazz singer, on the same level as Ella Fitzgerald, and it is so tragic that she didn't have the chance to make some jazz records.

Q: Did you own any Lady Gaga albums before you recorded together?

A: My son and manager Danny had played me her music, and I was very impressed with what a great piano player she is. Then we were both performing at a benefit event in New York City for the Robin Hood Foundation and I saw her perform live and she was just fantastic, so after the show I went backstage and I asked her if she wanted to record a duet with me and she said, "Tony, I'll do anything you want." The last track we recorded for "Duets II" was with Lady Gaga of "The Lady Is a Tramp." I think she is extraordinary.

Q: What do you talk to these people about during lunch breaks?

A: Actually most of the sessions would take about 3 to 4 hours, so we worked straight through, but we talk about everything in the recording studio.

Q: What does it feel like to get your first No. 1 album on the Billboard Top 200 at 85? Is there a sense of injustice laced with the elation?

A: I am just thrilled and many of my friends told me, "This will never happen again!"

Q: A complete collection of your 70-plus studio albums is being released this month. Can you believe you created so much product, and how do you feel most of it holds up?

A: I just love the boxed set collection as it showcases the premise that I started out with from the beginning, which was not to have "hit songs" but to strive for a "hit catalog." When I reviewed all the tracks, there was not one of them that I wouldn't want to put my name on.

Q: Barring the present moment, do you have a favorite Tony Bennett era?

A: Wow, that is a tough question. I loved the time I lived in London in the '70s, as I got to work with the master Robert Farnon.

Q: I read a quote where you said, "I was the Justin Bieber of my time." Does that mean he's going to be around for 60 more years?

A: I hope all the young artists of today have the chance to have long careers. I think it is very tough to do that as the emphasis is on the next big thing and there is so much pressure on artists in today's music business to sell millions of albums right away and fill stadiums the first time they go on tour.

Q: What do you think would happen if, just once, you left the stage without singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"?

A: I think as an entertainer your job is to please the audience, so I have been blessed with a beautiful signature song that has made me a citizen of the world. I love to perform it for everyone.

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