When Tony met Amy: Bennett recalls Winehouse fondly

Tony Bennett, who marked his 85th birthday with last fall's release of a followup to his popular "Duets" project, has outlasted many an artist.

Including Amy Winehouse, who can be seen in the studio with Bennett in a Jan. 27 PBS special, "Tony Bennet Duets II," singing "Body and Soul."

Yes -- Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett, PBS.

After Bennett, who declared himself a major fan of Lady Gaga, performed for reporters at a PBS event in Pasadena Thursday night, I asked him how he'd come to work with Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning last July at the age of 27.

"I was playing Royal Albert Hall for two nights … and she came back with her dad, and her boyfriend," Bennett recalled. "She said, 'You know, two years ago, I won a Grammy, and I wasn't excited about winning the Grammy, but that Tony Bennett was announcing.' She was a big fan of mine, and I was really surprised, because she [was] so young."

After he'd spent some time listening, he decided the admiration was mutual.

"She just had the gift of knowing how to sing as good, and was influenced by Billie Holliday, Jackie Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. Her dream was to become very, very famous doing that," Bennett said.

"I was doing my 85th birthday at the Palladium and BBC was televising it and I wanted her on the show. But my son [Danny, who's also Bennett's producer] called up two months after we did the record and tragically told me that she died. And the whole world went, 'Whoof.' They couldn't believe it, especially in Britain," he said.

"But then her father, many months later, came to America, and her mother, her mother got me on the side. She said, 'You know, everybody feels so tragic about her dying. But as a mother,' she said, 'I'm very different.'"

She told Bennett that Winehouse "actually did what she really wanted to do and she became world famous…Even though she had a very short life, she had a really successful life, because what she really wanted, what she dreamt about her whole life, happened…And that was so different than I ever heard a mother say about this tragedy that the whole world felt so bad about. It was quite different."

Bennett, who doesn't just bring the energy of a much younger man to his performances, but handled the followup press conference like the old pro he is, is more of a marathoner than a sprinter, and a bit of a Renaissance man, with three of his paintings already in the Smithsonian.

"I will never retire," he declared Thursday night, probably not for the first time, adding, "and if my voice goes, I'm still going to paint."


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