Tony Bennett will turn 80 on Aug. 3, and while he doesn't think of longevity just in marketing terms, he's happy to have a son who does. It was 15 years ago that Danny Bennett rescued his father from pop-culture oblivion by pairing him with younger stars--k.d. lang, the Red Hot Chili Peppers--on a succession of red carpets, nudging ol' Tone's style toward MTV without sacrificing his half-century of musical substance. Tony has been flying on the fumes of hipness ever since, and Danny sees the big eight-O as the perfect moment for another boost of publicity rocket fuel. "I've had my eye on this since his 75th," says the younger Bennett. "Most people's concept of 80 is you can't get up the stairs, but Tony still sings like he's 20, and he has fans of all ages. You bet we're going to remind people of that."
The coming months will see a Tony Bennett feature documentary, executive-produced by Clint Eastwood, and a prime-time NBC special directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago). Bennett, who in conversation sounds like he's smiling even on the rare occasions when he's not, has nothing but exclamation points for Eastwood ("A class fella!") and Marshall ("Best director I've ever worked with!"). Initially, though, he had no interest in making the album that is at the center of his booming birthday industry, Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic, due out Sept. 26. "I was apprehensive," says Bennett. "I lean toward jazz, but jazz doesn't sell records. Dan's idea was collaborations on my greatest hits with contemporary artists who are institutions--Streisand, Elvis Costello, Bono. I told him I'd do it, but on certain terms."
Except for a few wrinkles and a head of silvery, cotton-ball hair, Bennett doesn't look particularly old. He is, however, deeply old school. He calls Elton John a "new" artist and refers to his girlfriend as "my special lady." (That his special lady is 40 years younger upholds another show-biz tradition.) Bennett is at his most reactionary when it comes to making music. Since 1970's disastrous Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, which featured a Shatneresque take on Eleanor Rigby, he has clung to the great American songbook and insisted on recording with live musicians. If he's doing a duet, he wants his partner singing with him live on a single take--an almost unheard-of level of fussiness in an era when voices are spliced and diced and singers collaborate from different continents. "It's not just putting on a tuxedo, grabbing one of those old microphones and putting it on the album cover," says Costello. "With Tony, you've got to be there and have some curiosity about the music. You've got to learn his method."
In all, 18 acts--including Bono, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and the Dixie Chicks--tinkered with their schedules and submitted to Bennett's requirements. (A love for Bennett's voice was a driving factor, though the success of Ray Charles' multiplatinum, Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company was a compelling model of the benefits of synergy.) But singing à deux can be a tricky business. "Duets are blind dates," says Bennett. "You meet people, often for the first time, and then you've got to get close enough to them to get at the soul of a song. We're trying for instant intimacy. You never know if you're going to get it."