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Everybody Loves Tony Bennett

As he turns 85, the pop legend plays mentor to his artistic heirs

Tony Bennett remembers as if it were yesterday: "I was playing the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, and Bob Hope came to see me," he says. "When he was leaving, one of my musicians scooted out and asked him, 'How did you like Tony?'" It wasn't just idle curiosity. Seven years earlier, Hope had given young Bennett his start, even coming up with a streamlined name to replace his real one, Anthony Benedetto. In those days, Bennett says, it wasn't uncommon for veteran stars to take newcomers under their wings.

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Tony Bennett and singers

Bennett teams up with other stars in his new album. — Illustration by Sean McCabe

"The older entertainers would tell Rosemary Clooney and me, 'You're doing good, kids, but it's gonna take nine years for you to learn how to perform properly.' They were actually very accurate: It would take years to figure out what the public would like."

Bennett brings that same spirit of mentoring to his new Duets II album — singing with such junior partners as Michael Bublé, 35; Josh Groban, 30; and Carrie Underwood, 28 — and headlining a September 24 all-star gala concert in Los Angeles to support AARP's Drive to End Hunger. In an age when concerts explode with pyrotechnics, and recording stars spend months in the studio polishing a single track, Bennett says younger performers need to learn the power of standing in a spotlight, just them and the music, singing a classic song.

"I want to try and help the new artists to simplify," he says. "When I grew up, we were so prepared that by the time we did the record, we'd do it in three takes." That's the routine Bennett imposed on his Duets partners, and for many of them it was a revelation.

"They said, 'Gee, we love peforming like this! It's so much simpler.'"

And how did Bob Hope like the show all those years ago in Dallas? Tony laughs at the memory: "He said, 'Tony is now a consummate performer.'

"For me, it felt like graduation!"

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