Tony Bennett's 75th birthday is still yielding presents. Bennett celebrated his three-quarter-century mark in August with a gala event at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. RPM Records/Columbia fo

Tony Bennett's 75th birthday is still yielding presents. Bennett celebrated his three-quarter-century mark in August with a gala event at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. RPM Records/Columbia followed up in early November with a strong-selling birthday gift: "Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues," an album of 15 classic blues tunes and duets with the likes of Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel, Diana Krall, B.B. King, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Kay Starr, and Stevie Wonder.

Columbia senior VP of marketing and media Larry Jenkins estimates the first week's sales doubled Bennett's previous best. "I think the Grammy-winning 1994 'MTV Unplugged' did 15,000 the first week, and here we are over 30,000." The album is currently at No. 72 on The Billboard 200, with SoundScan sales of more than 55,000 copies.

Russ Solomon, who heads the Tower Records chain, says, "People like the blues, and this is a bona fide great record." Borders music buyer Brian McClemens adds, "It's a great record and selling better than my initial projections -- which were great."

"I like to do the unexpected with each album, and blues is such a departure from what the layman thinks Tony Bennett is about," Bennett says. But, he notes, "the first record I ever made was 'St. James Infirmary,' and that was blues, and I was the first white guy to sing with Count Basie -- and that was all blues, happy blues. Then on [his 1986 album] 'The Art of Excellence' I sang Ray Charles' 'Everybody Has the Blues' with Ray. So through the years I've been influenced by blues."

The concept for "Playin' With My Friends," then, "was a natural," continues Bennett, who still "did a lot of homework" at the Tower Records outlet in New York's Greenwich Village, where the blues department's clerks helped find material. "Then I was so knocked out that Phil Ramone wanted to produce it," he adds, "and I couldn't believe the names we got. Everyone hit a home run."

Noting that Bennett records live in the studio, Bennett's son/manager and RPM label chief Danny Bennett says, "a lot of the [guest] artists came in with a little trepidation, but they soon understood that they couldn't hide behind the security of overdubbing and rose to the occasion with a true live performance."

Columbia executive VP/GM Will Botwin describes "Playin' With My Friends" as "a big priority 'event' record with a great combination of artists -- and [the label is] treating it like that." Botwin adds that to support the set, Bennett has appeared or will appear on all the major morning and late-night TV talk shows, performed in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and will attend such events as the Nov. 28 tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.

Having recently completed a tour with vocalist k.d. lang, Bennett has a handful of tour dates confirmed through the end of the year, including a New Year's Eve show at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas.