Tony Bennett talks Sinatra, Gaga and suits

Few artists experience his level of career longevity. Even fewer do it with multiple resurgences that seem to attract new generations of fans.

Most of his peers are gone –- Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin – but the 85-year-old Bennett is not only hearty and happily touring (he stops at the Fox on Friday ), but he's enjoying some of the biggest successes of his career.

His current album, “Duets II,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in September – unbelievably, for the first time in his career – an accomplishment that shocked a guy who has seemingly achieved everything.

“Funny enough, my signature song, ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’ only went to No. 15 on Billboard, but to this day, I can’t leave the stage without singing it,” Bennett said.

Calling from his home in Manhattan, the legendary crooner is humble, soft-spoken, quick to laugh and willing to chat about everything from his duet with Lady Gaga to Alec Baldwin’s spot-on impersonation of him (“We’re great friends,” he said) to the reason you rarely see Bennett wearing anything but a suit.

On “Duets II,” a follow-up to his 2006 platinum-selling “Duets: An American Classic,” Bennett swaps lyrics with, among others, Carrie Underwood, Andrea Bocelli, John Mayer, the aforementioned Gaga and Amy Winehouse, who recorded “Body and Soul” with Bennett weeks before her death.

“I was going to try to tell her to slow down because at one time in my life I had a drug problem, so I understood,” Bennett said. “And then a month after we recorded, my son Danny called to tell me she died. I was shocked.”

While Bennett felt a kinship with all of his partners – with whom he performed live in the studio – he seems particularly smitten with the garish Gaga, his cohort on “The Lady is a Tramp.”

“She is fabulous. She’s a beautiful singer, a great piano player. She’s unlike any performer I’ve met in all my years,” Bennett said. “She invents herself on a daily basis. She dressed as a man for her performance on the MTV Awards and I told her that night, ‘If that was a film, you would have won an Oscar.’”

One of Bennett’s signatures as a singer is his unique phrasing, an emphatic lilt that comes from digging into a lyric and delivering it with not only emotion, but honesty.

It’s an art lost on many of today’s talent show performers, and while Bennett agrees there can be a disconnect, he doesn’t think it’s an issue specific to current-day artists.

“It’s a different premise. With Sinatra and Nat [King Cole] and Ella [Fitzgerald], they were doing definitive versions of songs that were well-written. That was the game. That changed with Elvis and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. When they played big stadiums, the intimacy was diminished and it became a different kind of thing,” he said.

On “Duets II,” Bennett covers several songs made famous by Frank Sinatra (“One for My Baby [and One More for the Road],” “The Way You Look Tonight”), a fan of Bennett’s who told Life magazine in the 1960s, "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business."

Bennett has never forgotten the accolade, even though the pair wasn’t particularly close.

“He was always very friendly and a few times invited me to his birthday party, which was a great experience. But I was never part of the Rat Pack and that whole thing,” Bennett said. “He also gave me good tips. There was one time when Gene Kelly was being honored in Hollywood and Frank was there and told me, ‘Keep your energy up. Always be energetic.”

Bennett is still following that advice. He said a recent doctor’s visit found him to be in top shape. He and his wife, Susan, exercise several times a week, do much walking around the city and eat well.

“I count my blessings,” Bennett said. “I’m a very contented person.”

Albeit one who has no desire to retire. A respected painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian and The Butler Institute of American Art, Bennett is now studying sculpting in between performing and promoting “Duets II” and the just-released “The Complete Collection,” a massive archive of 73 CDs and three DVDs.

He is modest about his latest popularity surge – “I love the fact that everybody loves the [“Duets II”] album. I’ve never had an album sell so much internationally,” he said with a touch of awe. But in true Bennett form, he doesn’t intend to change a thing about himself, including that omnipresent suit.

“I believe in style. I don’t like the new styles. I like quality and being civilized,” he said, noting that his mother was a seamstress and his uncle a tailor. “When Fred Astaire opened the Empire Room at the top of Rockefeller Center, every night had to be black tie, you couldn’t get in without a tux. Now you see what’s going on today! Funny, I see Cary Grant or Astaire on the screen and their clothes never look dated. They always stay in style.”

The same could be said for Bennett himself.

Concert preview

Tony Bennett

8 p.m. Nov. 25. $52-$122. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.

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