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Tony Bennett goes Gaga on ‘Cheek to Cheek’

Legendary singer Tony Bennett found an unlikely collaborator in shape-shifting pop superstar Lady Gaga. The two have united for a jazzy album of popular American standards called “Cheek to Cheek.” Jeffrey Brown sits down with Bennett to discuss their hit album and keeping jazz alive.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight, a musical collaboration with a most unlikely duo, one a living legend known for his voice and smooth style, the other one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

    (SINGING)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A classic from the 1930s, popularized by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the kind of song you might still expect from one of the greatest ever crooners of American standards, Tony Bennett,

    (SINGING)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But not so much from his duet partner, Lady Gaga, one of today's mega pop stars. She is known for her shape-shifting persona and over-the-top performances. Her millions of devout followers call themselves Little Monsters, and for hits like "Bad Romance."

    (SINGING)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But there they are together, dancing cheek to cheek on a new album that hit number one on the charts, as well as a PBS "Great Performances" special debuting tonight.

    The 88-year-old Bennett is one of the last of a bygone era that included Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin. Later in life, he's been reaching out to collaborate with artists often well outside his generation or genre, or both.

    In 2011, for example, he celebrated his 85th birthday by recording with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, the late Amy Winehouse, and other stars, including Lady Gaga.

    That experience, he told me yesterday in New York, made him want to work with Lady Gaga again.

  • TONY BENNETT, Singer:

    I love performing with her and she loves performing with me. And she happens to be a wonderful jazz singer. She improvises beautifully. Funny enough, she started out as a jazz singer, and was kind of turned down. The promoters said, you know, do something more contemporary that the young people like and all that.

    And she regretted it. When I listened to her, I said, by the way, you sing so spontaneously and beautiful. Let's do a jazz album together. And she said, I would love it. And so I put together a tremendous swing, big band, the best jazz artists around.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You, 88.

  • TONY BENNETT:

    Eighty-eight, right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why are you still doing this?

  • TONY BENNETT:

    I love it.

    I had a — I was blessed with a wonderful Italian-American family. My father died when I was 10 years old. And all my relatives, aunt, uncles, nieces, nephews, they would come over every Sunday. And my brother, my sister and myself would entertain them. They would make a circle around us.

    And it was just at the time, being 10 years old, I was saying, what am I going to do in life? Who is — is anybody ever going to know me or anything like that? And my family would say, we like the way you sing and we like the way you paint those flowers. So they created a passion in me of always trying to improve.

    And here I am, 88, and I'm still working and trying to get better and better at what I'm doing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You still feel that, right?

  • TONY BENNETT:

    Oh, absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I mean, you remember that young guy first starting to sing, and then here you are, still singing.

  • TONY BENNETT:

    Well, I was blessed under the G.I. Bill of Rights when I came out of the service and the war.

    I joined the American Theatre Wing. And it was a great source, that they allowed us to continue school that we missed during the war. The main thing I that learned from them was to always stay with quality, never compromise. You know, don't just try and get a hit record. Do something's that is going to last and that's intelligent. So, I treat the audience that way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What about treating yourself and you're — taking care of yourself, taking care of your voice to keep going?

  • TONY BENNETT:

    Right.

    I had good training with good teachers that taught me how to sing properly. And three times a week, I exercise and I stay in shape, and have a wonderful wife that treats me wonderful. And so I'm feeling very good about life. And I'm — I will never retire. I will actually just…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You will never retire?

  • TONY BENNETT:

    No.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why — you say that, you're clear about that?

  • TONY BENNETT:

    I'm just starting to learn now.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Bennett also still works hard to make sure that young people learn about the arts. The foundation that he and his wife set up, Exploring the Arts, works in public schools in lower-income areas of New York, including in neighborhoods where he himself grew up that otherwise have little access to the arts.

    He told me he's especially eager to help keep the jazz music he loves alive. And that, too, ties into the new work with Lady Gaga.

  • TONY BENNETT:

    Unfortunately, the record companies think in a contemporary way, and they don't realize how powerful jazz is.

    It's the only great art form that's ever been created in the United States, by African-Americans in New Orleans. They invented it to improvise, elongated improvisation. And it's a wonderful art. And for whatever reason, they don't promote it enough.

    So, that's the reason I did the album with Lady Gaga, to reach that young audience that she has. And for the first time in their life, they hear wonderful songs that swing and last forever. They're great American songs that were done in the '20s and '30s.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you're hoping, once young people hear these songs, they will want to hear more?

  • TONY BENNETT:

    It's the first time they have ever heard it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Through you and Lady Gaga, huh?

  • TONY BENNETT:

    Right. Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Tony Bennett, thanks so much for talking to us.

  • TONY BENNETT:

    Well, thank you very much. Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Wow, is he impressive.

    You can watch "Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek LIVE!" tonight on most PBS stations.

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