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Tony Bennett, we've got a crush on you

One of the requisites of being the Coolest Guy on the Planet is not admitting you're the Coolest Guy on the Planet. It's like Fight Club, but with less sweat. So when I inform Tony Bennett — who kicks off this year's Clearwater Jazz Holiday tonight — that he is, without a doubt, Cool Guy No. 1, he chuckles and, in that whispery hepcat rasp, says, "I haven't heard that before. Thanks so much."

This is a man who should have a brush beat behind him whenever he talks. Cool. Real cool.

Bennett turned 82 this year, but it's fair to say the Grammy-hogging Queens native is beloved more than ever. Reasons for this are myriad: his recent duet with Billy Joel at the shuttering of Shea Stadium, the rising popularity of his painting career, his appearances in movies (Analyze This) and TV shows (The Simpsons, Sesame Street), his ability to rock a five-digit Italian suit better than Sean "Diddy" Combs.

But maybe Bennett's popularity has to do with something larger, more profound. Like the survival of the species. Or, at the very least, Rihanna's booty shake. "Contemporary pop has created a junkyard of disposable music," he says. "I don't like it. And I don't like the way they dance. When I was a pup, you had to know how to do the Lindy, the Peabody hop. You had to be two steps from Fred Astaire."

Bennett is also concerned about the dire lack of joy in the world today, which is part of the reason he just released A Swingin' Christmas, featuring the brassy blasts of the Count Basie Big Band. "We need to lighten up," the singer says.

In a 20-minute phone interview, Bennett touched on all this and more, including why he'd rather play to a cozy Clearwater crowd than to 59,000 rowdies in a major-league baseball stadium. Here are excerpts of our chat, starting with my not-so-cool reaction to Bennett dialing me up himself 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Ring!

Hello, this is Sean Daly.

Hello, Sean.

Whoa, Tony Bennett?

Yes, thank you.

It's like the voice of God!

Thanks. Thanks.

I was just listening to your new Christmas album, on which you duet with your daughter Antonia. What are your tips for raising girls? I have a 4-year-old and an 8-month-old and they routinely outsmart me. I need help.

You have to love them all the time. Love is the only answer. Proper discipline, of course, but also great care, great love. You should always be teaching them, too, raising them to be smart, not moronic. That's critical.

You already recorded a popular Christmas album (1968's Snowfall). Why do another?

I wanted to do one that has a beat to it. No religious songs. I wanted people to party. It's the one time of the year people can drop the anger and get along. . . . Ever since I was a child, even as an adult, I've loved Christmas in New York, everyone lined up on Fifth Avenue, looking at the lights. Everyone's festive, loving each other. The best Christmas albums always had that spirit.

Speaking of New York, you just helped Billy Joel send off Shea Stadium with a duet of New York State of Mind. A Queens guy closing down a Queens landmark.

I had never played for that many people before: 59,000! It was special, but I'd rather not sing to that big a crowd. I like intimate crowds, Carnegie Hall.

You'll like the Clearwater crowd. Smart, reverent. And you can't beat the scenery.

Oh, yeah? I'm looking forward to it. The quartet I'm traveling with, they're the best. They play in an improvised fashion, completely different from night to night. The band challenges me and I challenge them. I'm 82 years old, and people say I've never sounded better.

You and Frank Sinatra are two of the great vocalists in pop history. I've always wondered how you got along. Were you competitive?

No! I loved Sinatra. He was 10 years older. He was my mentor. Frank, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. I learned from all of them.

A lot of younger fans know you through your movie and TV cameos. Do you enjoy seeing your mug on the screen?

The handsomest man in the history of film was Cary Grant. He bought my first painting. I asked him several times, "Should I do a sitcom? Should I do movies?" He told me to stick to cameos. He said movies are the most boring medium there is. You have to sit around for 13 weeks making the movie. And if it stinks, you have to sit around for another 13 weeks after that wondering why you ever made that piece of junk. So I listened to him. He said concentrate on playing to a live audience. A live audience is a teacher.

How do you listen to music these days? Are you an iPod guy?

I do have an iPod. I have XM, too. They have good standards, jazz. I also like classical. I don't like pop. It doesn't move me. Contemporary pop is pushed by corporations. Ten weeks after it comes out, it's dated. The music that I make lasts. . . . I've been with Columbia for 50 years, and I can tell you that their (back) catalog is 90 percent of their sales today. It's a mature kind of popular music. It doesn't sound dated. (Columbia) doesn't publicize that because they don't have to. When you stay with quality, it lasts forever.

Sean Daly can be reached at or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at

Tony Bennett, we've got a crush on you 10/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 11:20pm]
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