Tony Bennett: When faded stars see double

Tony Bennett is the latest vocalist to turn to younger singing partners to bolster his declining years, says Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

There's little more dispiriting than the sound of ageing stars frantically chasing after their lost youth. This autumn sees the release of Tony Bennett's Duets: An American Classic, in which the octogenarian crooner revisits his signature hits alongside a raft of younger artists, from Bono ("I Wanna Be Around") and Sting ("Boulevard of Broken Dreams") to John Legend ("Sing You Sinners") and the Dixie Chicks ("Lullaby of Broadway").

In recent years, pop has been frequently sullied by these so-called career-boosting collaborations wherein, possibly on the recommendations of their grandchildren, singers in their twilight years drag younger, prettier, hipper stars than themselves into the studio, with wildly variable results. The duets album may be one of the more lucrative weapons in the marketing man's armoury, but that hasn't prevented it from being ill-conceived, shoddily executed and inappropriate in the extreme. More often than not, it is the musical equivalent of cradle-snatching, where old duffers on nodding terms with the Grim Reaper get to rub up against singers half their age, and where the usual generational and stylistic boundaries are thrown to the wind in orgies of mutual admiration and the promise of big bucks.

There's no disputing that Bennett, whose career spans five decades, boasts a fine body of work. It's also fair to say that his golden years are now behind him, which makes it all the more distressing that, to mark his 80th birthday, he should see fit to pair up with a series of young pups and bask in their leather-clad glory. Surely a party and a birthday cake would have been more than adequate.

This isn't the first time that Bennett has played the duets card. His last release, A Wonderful World, a collection of songs associated with Louis Armstrong, was recorded with kd lang. Given that lang and Bennett are both gifted interpreters with pseudo-operatic voices, it made perfect sense and was widely praised. By contrast, Duets: An American Classic smacks of an artist desperate to stay musically relevant. On paper, at least, it's an album that belongs to that dubious Grammy-grabbing genre in which pop and rock royalty put on a glitzy show of mateyness while conspicuously failing to push the envelope.

Alas, Bennett isn't the first to travel down the rocky duets path and he certainly won't be the last. Dr John made a dubious comeback in 1998 with Anutha Zone, an LP of collaborations with a series of startlingly unsuitable bands including Supergrass, Spiritualized and Primal Scream. The following year we had Tom Jones with his Reload album, sweating it out next to youthful indie-rockers Cerys Matthews, The Cardigans, and Stereophonics. In commercial terms it didn't do Jones any harm but it wasn't exactly pretty to watch.

In 2002 another Sixties icon, Lulu, attempted to emulate Jones's success with Together, in which she tried to get hip with the likes of Samantha Mumba, Atomic Kitten and Take That. Mick Jagger's stab at contemporary appeal resulted in the critical flop Goddess In The Doorway with guest appearances from Lenny Kravitz as well as the former Fugee Wyclef Jean and Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with like-minded artists getting together and indulging in an extracurricular jam sessions, but that doesn't mean that the results should be inflicted on the world at large. Rare is the occasion when such pairings are based on any consideration of style or legacy. Frank Sinatra's 1993 Duets album, featuring collaborations with Gloria Estefan, Bono and Kenny G, was one of the low points of his career, made particularly excruciating by the ultra-slick production and the fact that the guest singers sang along to tapes of existing Sinatra performances.

Ray Charles's final album, Genius Loves Company, featuring, among others, Norah Jones, Elton John, Natalie Cole and Willie Nelson, may have flown off the shelves in the wake of the great man's death but it was hardly the elegant swansong that critics and long-standing fans had in mind.

It's not just the poor quality of these duets that is depressing for listeners. In many cases you suspect that they are simply a gimmick cooked up by record companies at a loss with what to do with their ageing stars. Stuck with a crumbling icon too old and out of touch to scale the charts by themselves and there can be only one solution: squeeze them into a shell-suit, bring in a hip-hop producer and force them to hang with the kids.

Just as tragic is the eagerness with which the kids will play ball, delighted to get some exposure with the minimum amount of effort. Indeed, nowadays there appears to be a new generation of musicians - serial collaborators, if you will - who have all but abandoned their own musical endeavours in favour of hitching a ride on those of older musicians. Certainly, no duets album is complete these days without appearances from Bono and Elton John. In his post-Fugees years, Wyclef Jean seems to have made a career out of performing rap cameos, a move which finally paid off this month when Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie", on which he co-stars, made it to No1.

While the fortune-reviving duets album is a relatively new phenomenon, the one-off collaborative single has long blighted the charts. Perhaps the worst offender was the juxtaposition of Bing Crosby and David Bowie on "Little Drummer Boy", a song memorably described in David Buckley's Bowie biography as "one of the most surreal events in pop", when "the 30-year-old former cross-dressing, cocaine-snorting bisexual rock god sang counterpoint to the bumbling cardigan that was Bing, 44 years his senior". Almost as peculiar was the pairing of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney on "Say Say Say" (1983), from the latter's Pipes of Peace album, and the Happy Mondays and the ageing Scottish yodeller Karl Denver on 1990's "Lazyitis".

These songs rarely rise above dreadful novelty status - think Chas and Dave, Renée and Renato, and Hoddle and Waddle. Among the more questionable record company tactics is to pair singers of the opposite sex in the hope that sexual chemistry will do the selling. Alas, a chill wind seemed to be blowing between David Essex and Catherine Zeta-Jones on 1994's "True Love Waves", ditto Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman on 2001's "Somethin' Stupid". And how wrong they got it with Kiki Dee and the then in-the-closet Elton John in "Don't Go Breaking My Heart".

There are, of course, rare occasions when two apparently mismatched artists turn out to have an alluring chemistry. Lee Hazlewood certainly put the spice back in Nancy Sinatra's career when he scurrilously offered to open up her gate in "Some Velvet Morning", while Nick Cave managed to bring Kylie Minogue some gothic respectability in 1995's "Where The Wild Roses Grow", a situation helped in no small part by a dreamy Pre-Raphaelite video in which the pop princess appeared as a corpse.

Perhaps the greatest duet of all was "Fairy Tale of New York", a perfect pop Christmas carol in which Shane McGowan's slurring old soak took on Kirsty MacColl's hard-bitten bag-lady.

But these are the exceptions to the rule. As history has repeatedly proven, the pop duet is, by and large, a foolhardy endeavour, less a meeting of ideas than an act of folly driven by financial reward, self-indulgence or plain desperation. Whether the brainchild of the artists and their planet-sized egos or a short-sighted record company strategy, the resulting records are a blot on the CVs of their makers, rarely fit for anything other than the record-store bargain bucket.

'Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic' will be released on 9 October