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Tony Bennett remains true to standards

  • Story Highlights
  • Tony Bennett's latest is "Ultimate American Songbook," album of standards
  • Bennett isn't jumping on bandwagon -- he's done standards all along
  • Famed singer still riding high, with Emmy win and book of paintings
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- Tony Bennett is having the last laugh -- again.

Bennett

Tony Bennett has been singing standards for his entire career, and is pleased to see others take up the task.

The 80-year-old singer has been a model of reinvention by, ironically, staying true to his roots.

Many times during his career -- in the late '50s, the late '60s, the mid-'70s, even into the late '80s -- his bel canto singing style, his love of standards and jazz, had been dismissed as passé, uncool. And each time Bennett persevered, believing the listening public is smarter than the critics or record execs believe it is, and he has been rewarded by being discovered by yet another generation.

So now it's another decade and standards are all the rage. Rod Stewart's reinvigorated his career with them. Barry Manilow hit No. 1 with them. Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr. have scored with them.

And Bennett? He's been doing the Great American Songbook all along. His handiwork is showcased in a new CD called "Tony Bennett Sings the Ultimate American Songbook Vol. 1" (Sony/Legacy), the first of a planned four discs of Bennett singing Gershwin, Porter, Kern and all the rest.

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The songs on the CD date from 1958 -- Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," originally from the "Long Ago ... and Far Away" LP (a Bennett record still not available on CD) -- to the late '90s, by which time Bennett had established himself at a new level of popularity, which included a 1994 "MTV Unplugged" session.

Even his collaborators show a startling breadth: Count Basie and his orchestra on 1959's "Taking a Chance on Love," Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond on 1971's "That Old Black Magic," k.d. lang on 1994's "Moonglow." (Of course, Bennett's longtime collaborator, pianist Ralph Sharon, shines throughout.)

Bennett observes that he's often had to fight to perform the standards -- even back when they were new songs, he says in a phone interview from his home in New York.

Back in the 1950s, record labels would often give singers such as Bennett and Rosemary Clooney commercial but disposable songs to perform, songs Bennett matter-of-factly describes as "easily forgotten."

Bennett on Baldwin

When Alec Baldwin hosts "Saturday Night Live," he often parodies Tony Bennett's upbeat attitude with the everything's-wonderful sketch, "The Tony Bennett Show."

But the real-life Bennett really does look at the glass half-full -- even the parody.

"Clint Eastwood explained to me, once you're poked fun at, then you know that the whole world knows who you are," he says.

He joined Baldwin for one sketch: "I had a lot of fun doing that," he says.

"But I always loved to just sing very intelligent songs. And I always thought you should never look down at the audience, you should look up at the audience," Bennett recalls. "[Famed Columbia Records executive] Mitch Miller used to say, 'Every time I give Tony Bennett a hit he wants to sing jazz.' But I never stopped doing that. So whenever I did get a hit, I would go in and record Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, the best music I could find."

Though a number of commentators have noted the re-emergence of standards' popularity, Bennett says it never went away. It's just that, in the amplified atmosphere of the arenas and stadiums that artists play today, such intimate songs were forgotten.

"We all started out -- by we I mean Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Sinatra -- we started in small rooms, nightclubs with 50 seats," he recalls. "Then you'd [eventually] move up to [something like] the Paramount Theater, which had 1500 seats. So now I play concert halls. I dislike playing big, big stadiums."

Not that Bennett misses the grind of playing the Paramount, one of New York's premier venues back in the day. "Seven shows a day. It was inhuman," he says. "Looking back, I remember that numbness I used to feel at 10:30 at night. I wouldn't sleep, I would faint. And then the first two shows in the morning, I was still sleeping when I was performing." That first show was at 10:30 a.m., not exactly prime time for a pop musician of any era.

He credits the public with guiding his performances. "The public teaches me," he says. "I sense what they like and don't like. ... I'm a servant to the audience."

The audience -- and his peers -- have given right back. Bennett's 2006 TV special, "Tony Bennett: An American Classic," won seven Emmys in September, including one for Bennett himself. And a new book of his paintings, "Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art & Music" (Sterling), has been among Amazon's top-selling art books for weeks.

Bennett began as a painter, and he's continued over the years thanks to some advice from Duke Ellington. "He told me, 'Do two things.' And I was wondering why he said that, then I found out: As you get burnt out from singing, the painting gives you a big lift. ... And when you get burnt out from painting, you go back to singing, and that gives you a lift. So you stay in a creative zone all the time. I'm on a perpetual vacation."

Still, it all comes back to the music. In the studio, with just the music and the microphone, it's a direct connection between his head, his heart and his voice, he says.

"It's very intimate," he says. "It's almost whispering in someone's ear." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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