Gaga, John Mayer and Amy Winehouse helped Bennett to his first No. 1 album -- but the old vet makes the kids cool
There is something about singing with Tony Bennett, celebrating his 85th birthday this year, that seems to inspire every performer to bring his or her artistry to its highest, most sincere level.
Bennett, like so many singers of Italian-American descent — from Russ Columbo to Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Vic Damone and Bobby Darin — possesses a certain kind of cool, a certain kind of smoothness and ease in his singing. He sings with a passion that nevertheless appears casual and easy.
Bennett’s seeming effortlessness reminds me of an old Italian saying — “never let them see you sweat.” He embodies the Italian ideal of “la sprezzatura” — making hard work appear easy. La sprezzatura was the concept of the 14th-century Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione, who, in his book “Il Cortegiano,” or “The Book of the Courtier,” explained how courtiers — those who attend the court or homes of royalty — should appear to their rulers. (Or, in the case of entertainers, their audience.) Originally meaning to exude nonchalance, the term has come to mean staying cool.
Last week, Bennett released “Duets II,” and it immediately soared to the top of the Billboard album charts. It’s Bennett’s first appearance at No. 1 in 60 years of charting — and he’s also the oldest living artist to hit the top spot. Of course, the young stars who duet with Bennett had something to do with that. But when you watch YouTube clips of Bennett and artists like Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and John Mayer, what you see is a master teaching the popular kids how to be cool.
John Mayer, who joins Bennett on “One for My Baby,” appears in a video wearing a suit and tie. He’s slightly awkward at first, almost like a teenage boy hoping to make a good impression on his girlfriend’s father — but with Bennett’s encouragement (“loosen that tie, that’s OK”) he quickly gets down to the business of making performance appear easy.
With Lady Gaga, Bennett sings a jaunty and fun “Lady Is a Tramp”– they improvise, and Lady Gaga’s crispness (“I Love the Yankees”) blends magically with Bennett’s raspy voice (“Jeter’s just fine”), highlighting the beauty of each singer’s style. Lady Gaga even lets loose her signature growl as she sings “I hate California — it’s crowded and damp.” But in Bennett’s presence, the good lady becomes positively regal.
Photos on YouTube show Lady Gaga performing with Bennett in a lacy black dress with light-blue hair. According to Bennett, though, bless his heart, Gaga “is a sweet little Italian-American girl who studied at NYU.”
But to me, the biggest revelation is his performance of “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse. Bennett shows us a side of her that makes her early death seem that much more tragic. Winehouse’s swinging jazz style, timing and confidence are nothing short of revelatory, especially as she sings the line “my life a wreck you’re making.” At age 27, she more than holds her own next to this veteran artist and entertainer.
Bennett has always pushed his own artistry, whether it was teaming up with Count Basie, Bill Evans or the other greats he has appeared with over the years. He always rises to the challenge with style and with grace. Luckily, for this next generation of singers to appear with him, his sprezzatura is contagious.
Mark Rotella is the author of “Amore: The Story of Italian American Song,” now in paperback.
More Related Stories
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Amazon set to launch fine-art gallery
- Twitter torches Dan Brown's "Inferno"
- Brad Pitt keeps breaking his silence on how boring marriage to Jennifer Aniston was
- Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" to use porn star body doubles
- New Beyoncé single leaked
- The sweet, sure to be short-lived "The Goodwin Games"
- Damon Lindelof admits barely-clothed scene in "Star Trek" was "gratuitous"
- Justin Timberlake: I'm a mediocre folk singer!
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11