Tony Bennett spoke with the Daily News and Newsday about his new CD of duets with 16 artists, ranging from the Dixie Chicks to Sir Elton.
Duets: An American Classic comes out on September 26, the same night Bennett performs with Natalie Cole at a One Night With Lite concert presented by radio station WLTW in the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
"When I was starting," he says, "the artists I looked up to - Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat (King) Cole, Count Basie - were 10 to 15 years older. To me, they were the masters.
"Now I record with artists where I'm older, and they treat me like the master. It's very flattering. When my son [Danny, also his manager and producer] told me Elton John wanted to do this record, I was shocked."
Elton also surprised ''the heck'' out of the older man ''because he walked in and did it in one take. He came in, sat down at the piano and said, 'Let's do one.' ''
This pleased Tony, who considers doing something like 40 takes ''a painful experience,'' quite unlike his latest project, where everyone participated in ''vocal jam session'' and had fun.
Sometimes Bennett is modest about his own work; however, he never undervalues his melodies.
"The music of people like Gershwin, Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter was a renaissance, a golden age," he says. "Like Europe when Monet and Van Gogh were painting.
"America created the greatest popular music in the history of the world. It's our greatest export. It's what we have to give to the world. And yet we're so young we don't fully appreciate it. It's crazy."
Unfortunately, in Bennett's view, this golden age was tarnished soon after he came along in the early 1950s. He says only half-jokingly that he and Rosemary Clooney were the last two artists in the door before things changed for the worse.
"Producers like Mitch Miller [at the crooner's Columbia label] started to feel they were more important than the artists," he says. "They weren't looking for music that lasted. They wanted something that would be popular for 15 weeks, then you'd throw it away and move on."
Among other things, this made it harder for artists to develop careers. Or their talent.
"People like Judy Garland or Basie were out performing for years," he says. "Now, all of a sudden, if your second record didn't sell, you were dropped. They'd tell you you were bigger than the Beatles, then in six months you'd be gone. And the songs got lost in the mix."
Sinatra left Columbia in part because of the music Miller insisted that he record. Bennett says he stayed because he and Miller worked out a compromise.
"We'd do four songs at a session," he says. "I would record two of his and he had to let me record two of mine."
A couple of Miller's choices resurface on "Duets," which showcases songs where Bennett had either the hit or the first version.
He confesses he's still not in love with Rags to Riches, his 1953 hit that he sings here with Elton. "As a song, it doesn't have that much substance," he says. "Although I warmed up to it after it sold a million copies."
Happily, he does enjoy most of the songs here - like For Once in My Life, which he recorded as a ballad a year before Stevie Wonder put a Motown beat behind it and had a monster hit.
Besides the concert and CD, Bennett recently finished an NBC television special that airs November 21. Like a number of his projects these days, it's supported by Target, and he raves about the unusual production by Oscar winner Rob Marshall.
While Bennett sings selections from ''Duets'' with Elton, k.d. lang and others, Marshall frames each one as a short film highlighting part of Bennett's career.
"This is different than any TV special you've ever seen," says Bennett. "It's so beautifully done. Rob is a master."