Tony Bennett talks Amy Winehouse, Lenny Bruce, new box set
You wouldn't think there would be much left for Tony Bennett to accomplish. The iconic singer, who turned 85 on Wednesday, has over a six-decade career won 15 Grammys, sold more than 50 million records and been a Kennedy Center honoree. But speaking to Pop & Hiss this week, Bennett said he still felt the itch to learn new tricks.
"I want to keep improving, and I want to keep learning, as a singer and in other ways. It's not that I want to -- I need to," Bennett said. "I've been thinking about that with my birthday. You know, I just started sculpting recently. It's a whole new thing."
As he spoke, Bennett was proving his own point. Immaculately dressed in a suit and matching tie-and-pocket handkerchief, he was between takes on the New York set of the CBS show "Blue Bloods," in which he has a cameo appearance this upcoming season. (Bennett plays himself, performing a duet of "It Had to Be You" with Carrie Underwood at a fundraiser attended by some of the series' characters. The episode, the show's season premiere, will air Sept. 23.)
Bennett certainly shows no signs of slowing down musically. He recently recorded "Duets II," a follow-up to his popular 2006 album in which he sings standards with an assortment of younger artist with contrasting vocal styles. The new album, which comes out Sept. 20, features recordings with Underwood as well as Lady Gaga (he had just recorded a rendition of "The Lady Is a Tramp" with Gaga the night before), Mariah Carey, Michael Bublé and Amy Winehouse.
Benenett said that when he sang with Winehouse several months ago -- the two recorded the jazz standard "Body and Soul," and even had cameras tape one rendition for a video release -- he attempted to give the British artist some advice.
"I was trying to tell her, 'You have so much talent. Slow down on the drugs or it's going to kill you,' " he said. "And then when I heard she died I couldn't stop crying. She was such a talent, so sweet."
Bennett is no stranger to addiction, losing years to it himself. He was hopeful his words would resonate with Winehouse, he said, because someone in the entertainment business had helped him change course. "I met Woody Allen's manager once and he told me he also had managed Lenny Bruce. I asked what he was like, and the manager said, 'He sinned against his talent.' That turned my whole life around." (The Winehouse song will be released as a single, with proceeds going to charity.)
Sony Columbia will also soon bring out a $500 box set of every album Bennett ever recorded dating back to 1950, an achievement the performer said he was especially proud of. "I'm thrilled about it, because 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, it won't sound dated," he said. "And that's really important to me. I'm anti-obsolescence."
Eschewing an artist's tendency to say they didn't look back with remorse, Bennett did say there were musicians he wishes he could have collaborated with. "I regret I never recorded with Louis Armstrong. He was an incredible talent, and I regret I never got the chance to record with him."
A moment later, Bennett walked back on the set for another take. When the scene wrapped, someone in the crew brought out cupcakes and the entire cast and crew, including Underwood and Tom Selleck, sang "Happy Birthday" to Bennett. The expression on the singer's face showed gratitude but a certain amount of restlessness to get on with his afternoon: There were, after all, more songs to record.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Lady Gaga joined Tony Bennett for a duet of "The Lady Is a Tramp" for his "Duets !!" album out Sept. 20. Credit: Josh Cheuse / PRNewsFoto/RPM/Columbia Records