On the day I meet Tony Bennett, a splendid summer afternoon in London, neither of us is to know that one particular song from his new album Duets II, a series of collaborations with stars ranging from Aretha Franklin to Lady Gaga, will soon overshadow the rest.
That song is "Body and Soul," a 1930 standard that he sings with Amy Winehouse. Talking about her to me, Bennett's face clouds over. "She's a great artist. I'd really like to help her, talk to her about slowing down, with the problems she's got," he says.
But that will never happen now. Not long after the veteran New York crooner's visit to London, Winehouse was found dead. "Body and Soul," a jazzy ballad on which she accompanies Bennett's warm tones with a statuesque slur, giving lines such as "My life, a wreck," the wayward flourish of a modern Billie Holiday, now carries the unwanted distinction of being her last official recording. Last month Bennett led the tributes to her at an MTV awards ceremony. "Amy had the whole gift, she sang beautiful," he said.
That fate should entwine the pair in this fashion is grimly ironic. Winehouse was only 27 and had two albums to her name. Bennett is 85 and Duets II is his 63rd album. Next month he will play a televised show at the London Palladium, with his old friend Cary Grant's words ringing in his ears: "He said, 'Make sure you play the Palladium because there's a lot of history there.' " No singer is better qualified to offer advice about artistic longevity than Tony Bennett. Few needed it more than Amy Winehouse.
Born in 1926, Bennett is one of the last survivors of the pre-rock-and-roll era of popular music. His first hit was the orchestral weepy "Because of You" in 1951. It was succeeded at No. 1 in the charts by Bennett's version of "Cold, Cold Heart," a cover of a Hank Williams song whose breezy pop makeover caused the volatile Williams to telephone Bennett complaining, "What's the idea of ruining my song?"
Bennett chuckles. "He said that with a sense of humor because it sold millions of records." It's July, two weeks before Winehouse's death, and we're at the Dorchester Hotel, in the lavish penthouse suite designed in the 1950s by the theater designer Oliver Messel. The walls are covered with smoky inlaid mirrors and green rococo decor mimicking an arbor. French windows open onto a spacious terrace balcony with a gurgling fountain and panoramic views over London.
It's a far cry from Bennett's Depression-era childhood in a small apartment above a sweets shop in Astoria, Queens. His father, a grocer, died when Bennett was 10, forcing his mother to become a seamstress to support the family. "My Mom had to raise three children and she was working on a penny a dress to put food on the table for us," he says.
Love of music ran in the family. His elder brother, who turned Bennett on to jazz, sang at the Metropolitan Opera as a teenager and was nicknamed "the little Caruso." Bennett's own beginnings as a singer were humbler. At 16 he began working as a singing waiter at an Italian restaurant in Queens, serenading diners.
"Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra and myself, we were all singing waiters when we first started," he says. "You'd take an order, what food they'd want, and then I'd say, 'What song would you like me to sing?' and I'd take their requests." Bing Crosby's hit "I'll Get By (As Long as I Have You)" was a popular choice. "I loved the gig. I very clearly remember saying to myself, I may not become a popular artist but for the rest of my life I'm going to be a singer."
Seventy years later he shows no sign of flagging. Bennett's vocals still have an easy, mellifluous charm. He purrs through Duets II like a vintage Rolls-Royce, relaxed in the presence of younger guests from the worlds of pop, rock, and soul, who in turn seem eager to please him, as with Mariah Carey's uncharacteristically restrained turn on "When Do the Bells Ring for Me?"
"As you get older you get a bit of wisdom. You learn what to leave out, simplify things; it gets a little warmer, more natural, and less pushy. You just interpret a lot better as you get older," he says.
Like Sinatra, he's Italian-American, changing his name from Anthony Benedetto to Tony Bennett after being discovered by the comedian Bob Hope. In his singing you can hear the bel canto traditions of the old country slipping seamlessly into the vibrant, seductive new world of mass-produced popular music.