After performing with Tony Bennett in January at an inauguration ball for President Barack Obama, Lady Gaga tweeted a photo of the duo with a text that announced, “Here’s me and my handsome date, I simply cannot wait for our album together.”
The two New Yorkers had so much fun teaming for a version of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” on Bennett’s hit album, “Duets II,” released in 2011, that they have decided to collaborate on a jazz recording. In interviews about the intriguing project, the veteran artist hailed Gaga as one of the best jazz singers that anyone’s ever heard.
“We are planning on doing a jazz album,” Tony Bennett explains, before heading out on an Asia tour. “We are still working out all the details. I can’t reveal too much about it, but I am very excited by the project.”
Entering his seventh decade as a recording artist with more than 100 albums and 17 Grammy wins, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, Bennett has earned his legendary status many times over.
The premier interpreter of American popular song, Bennett has delighted audiences for more than 60 years singing classic music of style, grace and romance. The only living artist to have new albums charting in every decade since the 1950s, Bennett introduced a multitude of songs into the great American songbook that have since become pop-music standards.
“There was a golden age of songwriting in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” he says. “You had master craftsmen such as the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin, all creating the best popular standards that have since become one of the greatest contributions that America has given to the world of music.
“I was fortunate when I was discharged from the army after WWII to be able to study under the GI Bill of Rights at the American Theater Wing, and it was there that I was taught never to compromise and always present the audience with the best quality entertainment. I think the Great American Songbook is the finest music that I can find to perform, and I never want to insult an audience by not giving them the very best.”
The son of a grocer and Italian-born immigrant, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in 1926, in Queens. Attending Manhattans’ High School of Industrial Arts, he nurtured two passions – singing and painting. His boyhood idols included Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, both big influences on Bennett’s natural singing style.
His big break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope noticed him working with Pearl Bailey at a Greenwich Village club. It was the famous comedian who suggested the name change to Tony Bennett.
Gradually more people recognized his talent and once “Because of You” became a million-selling hit in 1951, it was plain sailing. The record’s success, charting for 39 weeks, dramatically changed his life.
More hits followed from “Blue Velvet” and “Rags to Riches” to “Stranger in Paradise” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
In the 1960s, when record companies became more interested in promoting rock than classic crooners, Bennett resisted compromising and recording material that didn’t suit him.
“I had many battles with my record label and producers, even from the very first, as I had always wanted to strive to create a hit catalog, not just have hit records, many of which were novelty songs that would hit it big for a few weeks and then be instantly forgotten,” he explains. “Now over 60 years later it was worth the struggle, as Columbia recently released ‘The Complete Collection,’ which was the biggest box set of my songs they had ever created, and in reviewing the songs included I realized there wasn’t one song that I regretted recording.”
An avid jazz fan, Bennett was thrilled when he had the opportunity to record with various jazz greats like Count Basie (in 1957) and Bill Evans (1975). A teaming with pianist Dave Brubeck at the White House in the early ’60s was recently unearthed and released this year. A Vanity Fair review proclaimed, “Tony Bennett is Earth’s Coolest Cat.”
“I grew up loving jazz music and still do,” he says. “I gravitated to working with jazz musicians because they are such experts that they are able to improvise easily, which keeps each performance very spontaneous and in the moment. To have the chance to work with such genius artists, in particular Bill Evans, has been a true dream over the years.”
In 2001, he embarked on the first of what would become a series of popular duet recordings. The superb, Grammy-winning “Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues” paired the legendary singer with an all-star guest lineup, including Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and B.B. King, for duets on familiar blues songs.
“It was a lot of fun to do that album and I was particularly happy to have a chance to record with Ray Charles,” he reports. “My son Danny, who has been my manager for over three decades, had suggested the idea which really became the first of the duet records that we have been doing in the past few years.”
Five years later he released “Duets – An American Classic,” collaborating with an astonishing array of stars from Paul McCartney and Sting to Bono and Barbra Streisand.
Then in 2010, Bennett made music history when his album “Duets II” debuted at the top of the Billboard Album charts, making him the oldest vocal artist ever to achieve the No. 1 spot.
The many highlights included Amy Winehouse’s last recorded track, “Body and Soul,” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” with Aretha Franklin. Among the glowing reviews, The Wall Street Journal noted that Bennett was, “constantly reaffirming his position as pop music’s greatest living patriarch.”
And Jazz Times praised: “The truly delightful surprise is Bennett’s playful bantering with Lady Gaga on ‘The Lady Is a Tramp.’ Not since Crosby met Clooney have two pros demonstrated such effortlessly joyous chemistry.”
At the age of 87, this consummate performer still delights audiences around the world.
“Forget Tony Bennett’s age,” noted a recent Chicago Tribune review. “All that counted was the timeless nature of Bennett’s work – and its interpretive depth. No one sings a ballad like Bennett, and he offered several from his enormous repertory. Here, above all, was where Bennett showed why, from the start of his career, he has ranked among the most knowing interpreters of American song.”
After so many years in the spotlight, Bennett still relishes life and his ability to move people.
“I truly believe that life is a gift and I am happy every day to be alive and have a chance to learn something new or appreciate nature,” he says. “I try to keep positive as much as possible and avoid stress. Stress is something that I think can really shorten your lifespan. I also have a wonderful wife who makes sure that I exercise all the time and eat healthy.”
And of course he’s looking forward to visiting Maui again.
“I love to paint nature and there is such spectacular beauty there that I just can’t wait to arrive.”
* Tony Bennett will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 24 at Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. The concert will also feature his daughter Antonia Bennett. Tickets are $55, $65, $85, $125 and $150 (plus applicable fees), available at the box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.
“They don’t even do this in New Orleans,” marveled Iguana’s guitarist Rod Hodges after the close of the third annual Maui Jazz & Blues Festival on Saturday at Grand Wailea Resort. Not even at the Louisiana city’s legendary fest would you see assorted legends of jazz, blues, Zydeco and Latin music all jamming together as we witnessed on Maui, he said.
And that was part of the festival’s charm, seeing so many greats having fun “just playing,” as sax virtuoso Donald Harrison noted, after some extraordinary soloing on the jazz standard “Misty.”
With a crescent moon as a backdrop the spectacular setting of the resort’s Molokini Garden added to the night’s allure as guest artists dropped in and out of sets including Hawaiian soul singer Paula Fuga fronting an amazing 10-man band on “Lilikoi,” and Zydeco accordionist Dwayne Dopsie and blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker, boogieing through the rousing finale of Clifton Chenier’s classic “Hot Tamale Baby,” with an all-star backing of percussionist Lenny Castro, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, saxophonist Harrison, and the Iguanas.