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Tony Bennett, Timeless and On Top of the World

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Tony Bennett doesn’t like to talk about his legacy. Maybe it’s just the humility in his character, but even after 60 years in the music business he continues to look ahead. “You’re only as good as your next show,” he likes to say.

In other words, the best is yet to come.

Truth be told, Bennett, 85, is too busy these days for any such reflection. He’s got a hit on his hands, Duets II, the first Number One album of his prolific career.

It’s also one of the few unqualified blockbusters of 2011… and maybe 2012, as the all-star collection — which features collaborations with the likes of Carrie Underwood, John Mayer, Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, and Amy Winehouse in what turned out to be her last recording — has garnered three nominations for the upcoming 54th Annual GRAMMY® Awards, including Traditional Pop Vocal Album.

Such achievements and accolades are but the latest testaments to Tony Bennett’s timeless, seemingly universal appeal.

“It’s always about growing with your audience,” says Danny Bennett, son of Tony and, in matters pertinent to his father’s career, his manager. “We don’t feel like we’re cranking out toothpaste,” he quips about the notion of marketing one of popular music’s all-time greats. “We’re helping propagate the art.”

And yet even a legend as renowned as Tony Bennett needs a game plan when it comes time to release an album. For Duets II, Danny explains, “We started [planning] in February 2010, strategically thinking, How do we make this different from Duets I? [Who] are the artists that we’re going to [use]? What does the marketplace look like? How is it different from when we were successful with that first record so we’re not just sitting on our laurels?”

Indeed, a host of factors and circumstances were considered — and as he recounts some of them in detail Danny makes his father’s offer 30 years ago to handle his business affairs seem like the wisest move in the world — but of most importance was that the album complement the current musical landscape without compromising the integrity of its artist. “It’s a balance between art and commerce,” he adds, affirming a philosophy he’s found truth in despite musical trends and, on occasion, because of them.

In the mid-‘90s, an era in music which is often most associated with the propagation of grunge, Tony Bennett gained perhaps unlikely favor among Generation X, which embraced him as an elder statesman of hip. He was on MTV, appearing at the Video Music Awards and recording a performance with his quartet on MTV Unplugged; his LP of the latter won the GRAMMY© for Album of the Year in 1994. “If you think about it,” Danny says, “Tony in the ‘90s heralded in the iPod generation by presenting music and saying, ‘Guys, it’s okay. You can listen to Nirvana and Alice in Chains, but also Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett.’”

Such inclusive musical appreciation is not only supported by the diversity of artists on Duets II, but specifically, Danny maintains, by those who “grew up with hearing about Tony Bennett and learning about him through MTV Unplugged, not through the ‘50s or the ‘60s. So there are artists, like John Mayer and Carrie Underwood and Lady Gaga, who [have] looked at him as a role model.”

Duets II remains a bestseller over three months now after its release, which just goes to show that great music will never go out of style. Then again, neither will Tony Bennett. “How many artists, their greatest accomplishments are towards the end of their career as opposed to the beginning?” Danny reflects, sounding less like a business executive and more like a proud son. “I mean, that’s a pretty huge accomplishment.”

Tony Bennett photo courtesy of Josh Cheuse

Danny Bennett photo courtesy of Kelsey Bennett

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Johnny Marr, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Rickie Lee Jones, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • Kit O’Toole

    Great profile, Donald (and I love your lead sentence). I’ve seen Bennett several times, and every performance was stellar. He is one of very few artists who has actually moved me to the point of tears. Thanks for a very well-written article!

  • Nice get. He really is an impressive artist to be able to crossover generations the way he has. Aside from the true believers who thankfully made it happen, who would have thought that Unplugged album would have connected and become such a big hit. I would bet its success helped pave the wave for the late ’90s swing revival.

    I saw Tony a few years back at Hollywood Bowl and it was a delight. I consider myself lucky that I am going to see him again next week in a Pasadena hotel ballroom thanks to PBS.