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Tony the Great

Jazz legend Tony Bennett’s thoughts on Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey and others with whom he has partnered on his latest — ”Duets II”

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Tony Bennett wanted to help Amy Winehouse. The 85-year-old legend had heard that the troubled chanteuse was struggling with substance abuse, and after recording the jazz standard ”Body and Soul” with her for his new disc Tony Bennett: Duets II, he considered her a friend. Knowing he’d see her at his birthday celebration at London’s Palladium in October, he planned to have a talk with her then.

Sitting in his art studio in Manhattan, surrounded by his own paintings of landscapes and still lifes, Bennett recalls what he intended to say. ”I was going to sit her down,” he says, gazing sadly out the window at Central Park. ”I was going to tell her, ‘It’s going to kill you if you don’t stop.”’

He never got the chance. ”Body and Soul” would be the last recording for Winehouse, who passed away in July from still-undetermined causes. It’s easy to understand why Bennett felt he might be able to save her. Back in 1979, when his music had fallen out of favor and the IRS started proceedings to take away his home, he nearly overdosed on cocaine.

Realizing that he had to pull his life together, he called his son Danny for help, and the younger Bennett became his dad’s manager, eventually reigniting his career with 1994’s MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett and 2006’s Duets: An American Classic, which found him collaborating with the likes of Bono, Paul McCartney, and Dixie Chicks. Now Bennett, happily married to third wife Susan Crow since 2007, can’t walk down the street without earning a shout from every doorman he passes: ”Hey, Ton-ay!” ”Lookin’ sharp, Mr. Bennett!” ”Is that Tony Bennett? My mother would die.” Smartly dressed even on a sweltering summer day, he’s the same old-fashioned gentleman he’s always been. (Once, after being roused from his hotel bed by an earthquake, he famously changed into a three-piece suit before evacuating.) And on Duets II, he’s still got the chops to sing the classics alongside Lady Gaga (”The Lady Is a Tramp”), Norah Jones (”Speak Low”), Mariah Carey (”When Do the Bells Ring for Me”), and Michael Bublé (”Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”). ”[My] teacher used to say that one of the most important things about being a great singer was that your voice is unmistakable,” Bublé tells EW. ”And his voice, you know — it’s Tony Bennett. No one else even sounds close.”

If Bennett is the vintage crooner who’s hip enough for the kids, he’s also held that title longer than most. In the ’50s, he got nascent rock & roll fans to appreciate the Great American Songbook, and he made it feel rebellious in the counterculture ’60s to listen to standards again. In August, he was seated next to Lady Gaga at MTV’s Video Music Awards. ”She showed up as a boy!” he says, laughing. ”That was so great.”

But at heart, Bennett remains a traditional guy. This spring, he visited his father’s hometown of Podargoni, Italy: ”I stood in the exact spot my father did. It was a cloudy day, and when I sang ‘O Sole Mio,’ the clouds went away and the sun hit me. Unbelievable!” He smiles. ”When people say that that’s old music, that’s incorrect. It’s never gonna die.”

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