It's kind of impossible to prepare for an interview with Tony Bennett. He has sung with everybody, from Frank Sinatra to Amy Winehouse, and his career stretches back to 1936, when New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was in the crowd watching little Anthony Dominick Benedetto commemorate the opening of the Triborough Bridge. Through it all, Bennett has never varied his singing style -- impossibly smooth and suave, improvisational but never over the top, totally grounded in jazz. Before celebrating his 85th birthday with a Metropolitan Opera concert and benefit on Sunday, Bennett spoke by phone from his Manhattan office about his career, upcoming box set and the new "Duets II" album.
You'll put out "The Complete Collection," with 73 CDs and three DVDs, in early November. How do you carry it?
It's not that heavy with the CDs. They're very, very light, and it's almost the size of a cheese box.
What have you learned about your career by listening to all those CDs?
Well, I'm still learning, believe me when I tell you. My premise has been a little different -- I never did disco, I never did rap, I never did whatever the fashion is. I never did adolescent songs. I did quality songs. I never wanted the audience to mistrust me. I always said, "I don't want a hit record -- I want a hit catalog." That's what's happened.
Each singer on "Duets II" matches your understated style -- with one exception. Lady Gaga goes way over the top on "The Lady Is a Tramp." What did you make of that?
What's wrong with show biz? Nothing! I like anybody that entertains the audience, and I mistrust anybody that doesn't care about the audience.
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I was surprised Mariah Carey sang so subtly. She really held back.
It was like singing with three people, because her twins were in her tummy. We went to her home in Los Angeles, a beautiful home see all of the Valley. She had a great recording studio there. She sang that way because she would have had the babies that night if she had given 100 percent!
A lot of artists on "Duets II" sing jazz with you, but Amy Winehouse, who died not long afterward, is maybe the only true jazz singer.
Either you have the gift of syncopation or elongated improvisation, and you can hear it with your ears, and your mind and heart can hear it, or you can't do it. And she, of all the young singers I've ever met, had the most talent. She had the gift of really knowing how to improvise and sing. And she died at 27 years old. If she kept her health and got rid of any bad habits, she could have had a long life of great success. Because the public of Europe adored her, and they were all rooting for her, and they wanted her to be around a long time.
The benefit you're doing is for your charity, Exploring the Arts, which boosts art programs in schools. Has its mission changed since the recession began and schools have had to cut budgets?
Exactly. Well, I love what's happening. We've collected over $2 million. The whole dream is to go around the country and [in] every school to try to have more art programs. And have a country where citizens are treated with truth and beauty, [which] is better than hatred and evil killings.
WHO Tony Bennett
INFO $50-$350 (sold out); 212-362-6000, metopera.org
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Nov. 18-19, NYCB Theatre at Westbury
INFO $76-$86; 800-745-3000, livenation.com