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TONY! TONY! TONY!

TONY BENNETT IS GETTING OLDER--AND BETTER.

Actually it was New York's Paramount Theater where he made his first splash. Bob Hope had seen him auditioning for a revue at the Greenwich Village Inn in 1949 and had been impressed enough to add him to his show at the Paramount--so long as he ditched the Joe Bari moniker, that is. As Tony Bennett, the singer began getting better and better gigs, and his expanding following and undeniable charisma convinced Columbia Records to put him under contract a year later.

What followed was a string of popular singles: "Because of You," "Cold, Cold Heart," "Can You Find It in Your Heart," "In the Middle of an Island" and, of course, the signature track "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," cut in 1962. Bennett didn't dominate the music charts during the Fifties and early Sixties, but his hits came at predictably frequent intervals. At the same time, he weathered the rise of rock and roll with more grace than might have been expected. The reason had everything to do with his decision to resist being retooled into something he was not.

According to Bennett, "I was fortunate enough to introduce so many beautiful songs, like `Stranger in Paradise,' `Blue Velvet,' `For Once in My Life,' `The Shadow of Your Smile.' I became known for finding new songs and having them become permanent standards--and we used only the best-quality songs. But in the Sixties, everything went quite crazy--not just with music, with everything. And that's when they started saying, `We want you to cover Top 40 songs only.' They wanted me to cover Janis Joplin songs. And I said, `No, you do it.'" He laughs. "I took a hiatus on that." This is no exaggeration: Bennett's essential boxed set, Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, contains only one rock song--George Harrison's "Something."

Columbia was not amused, and when Bennett flatly refused to sing more rock music in 1971, the company dropped his contract. He subsequently founded his own record company, but in spite of a fine roster that included jazz stars Bill Evans and Earl "Fatha" Hines, it went bust. With his schedule suddenly less crowded, Bennett took up painting. The result was a second career that's won him fans such as fellow painter David Hockney and earned him a place of honor at Ohio's Butler Institute of Art, where his work is displayed alongside pieces by American masters Whistler and Homer. The name he puts on his canvases, some of which have sold for more than $50,000, is "Benedetto."

Still, Bennett didn't give up on singing. He toured regularly, and his only concession to changing times was a series of flashy toupees (his current gray, curly model is far classier than his Seventies rugs). He continued to win warm notices from reviewers, but he seemed to be drifting into semi-obscurity when his son Danny began managing him in 1979. The younger Bennett didn't ask his father to compromise his vision, but he did put a fresh spin on his image. Columbia noticed and brought Bennett back into the fold in 1986. His first album upon his return was The Art of Excellence, a disc whose title speaks volumes about Bennett's mature style.

"I used to do three albums a year for many years," he notes. "But as a result of slowing down and doing one album every two years, I've realized that the more time you take, the better it is. That way, you're really able to edit it and take care to make sure it's just right instead of doing four extra tunes just to fill up an album. I've really had the opportunity to study the art of singing."

The disc that pushed Bennett back into the limelight was Perfectly Frank, a collection of 24 songs associated with Frank Sinatra, a singer who's overshadowed Bennett since his emergence as a national figure. Bennett, however, displays not a smidgen of jealousy or resentment when speaking about the Chairman of the Board. "He's always been great to me and supportive of me, and for years he mentioned me on the road to audiences as his favorite singer," he insists. "He considers me his best friend."

The spirit of good fellowship convinced Bennett to contribute to Sinatra's 1993 Duets collection, joining the Voice for a rendition of "New York, New York." Bennett admits to wishing that he'd had the opportunity to sing in the same studio with Sinatra; like the other guests on the disc, he added his part long after the star of the show had recorded the song, causing the collaboration to sound a bit like high-tech karaoke. But at the suggestion that Bennett clearly outsang Sinatra throughout the tune and is proving to be more artistically intriguing at this juncture, the modest Bennett jumps to Sinatra's defense.

"He's conquered the whole business--I haven't surpassed him," he says. "He created a whole era, the best era of popular music, the most romantic era. And his films are wonderful. He's mastered every medium, and the people still love him." More gently, he adds, "And don't forget, he's ten years my elder. I don't know what I'm going to be doing ten years from now. I hope to stay healthy but, you know, life is life. I still think there's a lot of unpredictable things that can happen with Sinatra, where he could just straighten out and sound better than ever. There's still a very strong possibility of that."

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