"We're nature, we're part of the same DNA. I live over Central Park and I study it all the time," says Tony Bennett, who lives in New York City when he's not traveling the world for singing engagements. At 85, the 15-time Grammy winning musical legend hasn't slowed down and is enjoying the kind of success most entertainers can only dream of having seven decades into a career. He hit #1 with his album "Duets II" last year, featuring performances with young singers Lady Gaga, Queen Latifah, Michael Bublé and the late Amy Winehouse, and a special about the making of the record will premiere on PBS' "Great Performances" on Jan. 27.
"I had a very strong passion that still persists today. I'm only as good as my next show. I need to improve every time. I never give up. Duke Ellington said, 'Number one don't quit. Number two, listen to number one.'" Bennett outlines what motivates him. He grew up with his mother, "a seamstress working for a penny a dress" after his father's death, and siblings who'd join him in entertaining his extended family on Sundays. He served in the Army in World War II, and studied at the American Theatre Wing on the G.I. Bill after the war. He attributes his longevity to singing quality songs. "I think the public deserves that," he says, crediting his band with making his signature song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" sound fresh every night. They change it every night so it feels like a brand new song every time I sing it."
Bennett vows that he "will never retire. If my voice goes, I'm still going to paint," says the artist who has three paintings in the Smithsonian. His musical agenda is full, according to his son Danny, his manager and producer. Inspired by the success of the collaborations on "Duets" and "Duets II" with Juanes and Alejandro Sanz, "We're going to do a 'Latin Duets' record," says Danny Bennett, outlining plans to team up with other Latin artists for Spanish versions of the songs. He's eyeing a fourth quarter 2012 release. "We may talk about a television special with Univision."
Bennett will continue to travel, with appearances in Australia and Japan coming up and a European summer tour planned. "For years, Stevie Wonder and I have been talking about doing an album," he says. He's also very involved in fostering education, particularly arts programs. He and his wife founded a school called the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in his old New York neighborhood, Astoria, Queens, "and it became so successful that now we have 14 schools throughout the five boroughs of New York City. 99 percent graduate and 97 percent go to college," he says proudly. "I want every public school in the United States to have arts programs."