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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When you think of American classics, you might think of baseball, Abe Lincoln, apple pie and Anthony Dominick Benedetto - Tony Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAGS TO RICHES")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) I know I'd go from rags to riches.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST IN TIME")

BENNETT: (Singing) Just in time. I found you just in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO")

BENNETT: (Singing) I left my heart in San Francisco.

SIMON: Tony Bennett's released more than 70 albums in a career that spans 60 years. His latest: "Duets II," on which he collaborates with Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, John Mayer, Amy Winehouse, Natalie Cole, Lady Gaga and more outstanding musicians. Tony Bennett joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

BENNETT: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Got to get to that Lady Gaga collaboration. So whose idea was this?

BENNETT: It was my son's idea to do "The Lady is a Tramp."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY IS A TRAMP")

BENNETT: (Singing) She gets too hungry for dinner at 8.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm starving.

BENNETT: (Singing) She loves the theater, but she never comes late.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I never bother with people that I hate. That's why this chick is a tramp.

BENNETT: (Singing) She doesn't like crap games with barons and earls.

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I won't go to Harlem in ermines and pearls. And I definitely won't dish our dirt with the rest of those girls.

BENNETT: (Singing) That's why the lady is a tramp...

SIMON: She's got, obviously, a very distinctive pop voice. But she's a great jazz singer.

BENNETT: She sings beautiful. It was a wonderful experience. What I liked about it, at the end of the recording, she went around to everybody that had anything to do with setting it up - the microphones or whatever - and she thanked them all for being so nice to her. She has a very professional attitude about things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY IS A TRAMP")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm all alone when I'm doing my nails.

BENNETT: (Singing) That's why the lady is a tramp. Go.

SIMON: How do you figure out an album like this - what songs to pick, and what singers to approach?

BENNETT: Well, funny enough, this is a very unusual album that I've made in all the years I've been recording. I really involved my personal family, making the album. My son did all of the engineering of the recordings. And then my other son has been managing me for many, many years. And he chose all of the contemporary artists. I honestly didn't know most of them.

SIMON: Bet they knew you.

BENNETT: I guess their parents told them about me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You can find anything on YouTube these days.

BENNETT: Or my grandparents - their grandparents. But anyway, it all worked out beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: One of the many great artists is - I think we can say this without doubt - another legend, and that's the great Aretha Franklin. And we're going to play a clip of your performance. Now, we're going to let her ask you the next question:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last?

SIMON: So how do you keep the music playing?

BENNETT: I love it. I have two loves in my life, and that is to sing and paint. And that's always been this very strong passion, and it's been consistent. And with each year, it becomes more emotional for me, more committed to keep learning. And there is this saying in the entertainment world: You're only as good as your next show. And that's how I feel. You have to keep learning and growing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BENNETT: (Singing) How do you not run out of new things to say?

FRANKLIN: (Singing) And since we know it always changes, how can it be the same?

BENNETT: (Singing) And tell me how, year after year, you're sure your heart will fall apart each time you hear her name?

SIMON: Who do you think you can put into a song in your 80s, that you couldn't in your 30s or 40s?

BENNETT: The business of knowing what to leave out. That happens with age. Less is more. And it becomes more of a performance. It tugs the listeners' heart by knowing that it's just in the right pocket, right in the right groove.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BENNETT: (Singing) Oh, but you're lovely with your smile so warm and your cheeks so soft. There is nothing for me but to love you just the way you look tonight...

SIMON: Do you have to work on keeping your voice supple and ready?

BENNETT: Yep, that's it. You have to be consistent, you know. But I had very good training. I was in the service in the war, in the Second World War. And when I came out, under the GI Bill of Rights, they gave us the best teachers. Zielinksi was secretary to Stanislavski, the method-acting teacher - of Russia; performed with him on the stage. Piatra D'Angea was my bel canto teacher, to keep my voice in top shape. And Mimi Spear(ph) was right on 52nd Street. And she told me: Never imitate another singer. Just listen to musicians and find out how they phrase, and how they feel about a song. And imitate them - so that if you imitated another singer, you would just be one of the chorus. Very good advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This CD gets a lot of attention - well, because it's yours but also, one of the last recordings of Amy Winehouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

BENNETT: (Singing) My heart is sad and lonely. For you, I sigh. For you, dear, only. Why haven't you seen it? I'm all for you, body and soul.

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I spend my days in longing, and I'm wondering why it's me you're wronging. I tell ya, I mean it, I'm all for you, body and soul...

SIMON: It's Johnny Green's great "Body and Soul," Tony Bennett and the late Amy Winehouse. We're sitting here and you're shaking your head as if to say, what a loss.

BENNETT: Um-hum. By the way, thank you for mentioning Johnny Green, who I considered one of the most intelligent men I've ever met, and a beautiful composer and a magnificent human being. But Amy, what a tragedy. She was as great as Ella or Billie Holiday. She had the whole gift. What a tragedy it is that - she could have had the most beautiful life to - singing songs like that.

SIMON: It sounds like you were very touched by meeting her.

BENNETT: I was, you know - because my master was Sinatra. When Elvis Presley came along, the whole music business world changed, you know, into big stadiums. The art of intimacy was gone. So then it was the Beatles and Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and so on. And I kept listening, saying, let me hear a singer. I want to hear a Nat Cole. I want to hear a Sinatra, you know; I want to hear a Jo Stafford or Ella Fitzgerald. And she was the first one that came along, of all the young ladies, that actually had the gift. She was a great singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) Are you pretending? It looks like the ending, unless I could have one more chance to prove, dear.

BENNETT: (Singing) My life a wreck, you're making.

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) You know I'm yours for just the taking.

BENNETT AND WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I'd gladly surrender myself to you, body and soul.

SIMON: Who else would you like to do a duet with?

BENNETT: Hmm. Louis Armstrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, someday. I hope not too soon.

BENNETT: No trick. No trick. He was too good.

SIMON: I can't end this interview without asking you, what's the secret to staying alive and active and creative and there?

BENNETT: I live life. I wish I could communicate to the whole planet of what a gift it is to be alive.

SIMON: Is that something you sometimes feel more as you go on?

BENNETT: Yes. I've just learned by studying nature - 'cause I paint every day - and I keep learning that the master, as Rembrandt said - it's nature. And you keep looking at, and you keep trying to understand it. You can't comprehend the height of creativeness that nature has. What a gift it is to be part of the whole universe.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Bennett, you're going to take us out with a song. Great to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time.

BENNETT: What a pleasure. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BENNETT: (Singing) This is our last dance together. Tonight soon will be long ago. And in our moment of parting, this is all I want you to know...

SIMON: Tony Bennett. His latest album, "Duets II," is out now. And you can see Tony Bennett's performance by going to our website, NPRMusic.org.

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