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At 86, Bennett not giving up on singing, art


– Tony Bennett doesn’t speak Spanish and he was not familiar with most of the Latino artists he recorded with for his new album, “VIVA Duets.” But to his delight, the great American crooner discovered some common ground while recording: “They sing with the heart.”

The 12-track album, out this week, includes collaborations with superstars such as Christina Aguilera, Gloria Estefan and Marc Anthony. Songs include “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me),” “For Once In My Life,” “The Best Is Yet To Come,” and “Return To Me (Regresa A Mí),” an English/Spanish duet with Mexican great Vicente Fernandez.

Bennett greeted The Associated Press for a recent interview while surrounded by his oil and watercolor paintings in his art studio in Manhattan. He was putting some finishing touches to a watercolor he was working on while whistling the tune “Fly Me To The Moon.”

He’s as proud of his art work as of his singing career, professing his love for both art expressions and showing proudly how, as an octogenarian, he’s just taking on sculpting with a bust of his friend Harry Belafonte.

Q. You recently turned 86 and you keep recording, traveling, painting. … What is the secret of your longevity?

A. Many people say, “How come you’re not retiring?” I love life, so much. There are two things that I love very much: I sing and I paint. ... It’s really a lifetime study, so you keep learning from it. My ambition, if I get lucky enough, is to actually attempt to learn more and more and get better as I get older.

Q. Your voice still sounds impeccable. How do you keep it in shape?

A. Well, I had very good training. I was in the Second World War, ... and when I got back under the G.I. Bill of Rights the United States gave us schooling to make up for (the education) we would have had when we were in the Army. I made a very good move by joining the American Theater Wing. They gave us the best teachers. I had a real great education on how to preserve my voice and how to think about it, and I had great teachers who taught me how to perform. It’s helped me right through the years, I still remember everything they taught me.

Q. A new duets album is coming out, “VIVA Duets,” this time with all Latin stars.

A. I loved it. I had no idea what to expect and what I found (is) it’s kind of what they taught me in school – never to compromise and just do quality. And that’s completely different than the outside world. The record companies want the latest fashion – rap or disco or whatever is coming out next. And I never did that. I went along with my teachers: Never do anything unless it has quality.

Q. You recorded the songs in person with them. You even traveled to Vicente Fernandez’s ranch in Mexico.

A. It was fantastic. He’s the favorite. They treat him like Frank Sinatra in the Latin countries. ... He had a beautiful recording studio right on the grounds and we recorded right there.

Q. Any anecdotes of that trip?

A. We had lunch with him and his wife and his people; my wife was with me. They were so gregarious. I said, “You have all these animals in your ranch, it’s fantastic.” And “Oh, you like it?” Someone came over with a small dog to my wife and said, “Here, this is for you” (laughs). But we have a dog so I said, “Thank you, but we have a dog.” The dog was adorable though (laughs).

Q. Juanes once said he warms up his voice with a tape you were generous enough to share with him. It’s obvious that younger singers may have a lot to learn from you. Have you found yourself leaning from them?

A. Yeah, a lot of them, every one of them. See, the one thing about the Latin singers, the majority of music that Latinos love, that the public loves of the Latinos, is they sing from the heart. And that doesn’t go away. That makes the record never sound old-fashioned. There’s some gimmick that’s popular for 10 weeks and then forgotten. (But here) there was so much feeling in their performances that it will always sound good.