She nestles restlessly in her father's lap, sun-warm red hair cascading across an unfurrowed brow, an 11-year-old's softness enveloped in a bright summer dress. Contrary to popular song, Tony Bennett has not left his heart in San Francisco.

"My Antonia got up last night on the second show, sang 'Puttin' on the Ritz' and broke it up," he says, beaming. "People really enjoyed it. So my older daughter, Joanna, has just informed me that she has the sheet music to 'New York, New York.' They're getting into singing a bit."

They're even getting into the songs. "Joanna," a longtime staple of Bennett's repertoire, immortalized its 15-year-old namesake. "Yeah, it's every man's favorite song, that tune," Bennett says. "Cary Grant, people like that, tell me that's their favorite song and it always thrills me."

Later, when Antonia is in another room, he adds, "This one here has so much talent. I know it sounds like a proud daddy speaking, but she is so bright, and she has all the creative elements. She listens clearly. If you correct her, she doesn't take it personally. I can explain things, and she does them right away. She is a wonderful painter, she sings terrific. All my kids are happy and healthy and have talent, but this one here captures everybody."

Bennett's done some capturing of his own over the past three decades, though seldom in such close quarters as Blues Alley, the 125-seat jazz club that's celebrating its 20th anniversary with blockbusters like Bennett (through Friday) and Sarah Vaughan.

And he's loving it.

"It's a much closer connection with the audience," he says of his performance. "It's done in a more natural way -- understated, less phony. You don't have to go into big showmanship things. And it's fun because if you do some very subtle things, the whole audience gets it real quick. You find yourself ad-libbing a lot more; there's more humor.

"And I love playing with my trio best of all. It's a lot more relaxed."

Not that Tony Bennett is relaxing, particularly after Frank Sinatra called him "the best singer in the business, the best exponent of a song." He still follows the dictum delivered to him by Judy Garland 30 years ago, putting new songs into his act every time he opens someplace new. And since there is always someplace new, there are always new songs.

"I think every time you hit the stage, you learn something -- it's always a challenge," he says. "I always do three new songs. It makes you feel vital every time, there's always a new spirit rather than getting tired of doing the same old song."

Bennett, of course, owns "San Francisco," although it would be just as correct to say it owns him. "Actually, that's a blessing," he insists. "Certain performers have certain songs that they own, like Judy Garland with 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' Lena Horne with 'Stormy Weather,' Sophie Tucker with 'Some of These Days' . . .

"It becomes a handle that everybody knows, and they remember that artist. You have to understand, ever since the song came out, I've been sold out all over the world. Unintentionally, it's made me a citizen of the world, gave me a great education. That's the reason the people come to see me, so it's turned into my favorite song. It's completely opposite from a curse."

Oddly enough, the song had been sitting around unrecorded for seven years before Bennett's musical director of the past 30 years, Ralph Sharon, persuaded him to record it in 1962. "San Francisco" made international the stateside stardom that had been established in the '50s with such hits as "Because of You" (Bennett's first million-seller), "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Cold, Cold Heart." His tenor has long since slipped toward a classy baritone and his hair has been supplemented by a bushy toupee (called the entertainment world's "worst-fitting hairpiece" in Sunday's Parade), but at 58, Tony Bennett seems to be going strong.

Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, he grew up in a musical/artistic New York family. Attending New York's High School of Industrial Arts, he was actually grooming himself to be a commercial artist, earning a little spending money singing at local restaurants. Upon graduation Bennett was drafted and sent to Europe in the last months of World War II. When he got back to New York he took voice lessons under the GI Bill, scoring his first success in 1950 on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts -- he came in second to Rosemary Clooney.

After appearing in a nightclub revue with Pearl Bailey, he eventually landed a Bob Hope tour and a new name (he'd been appearing as Joe Bari -- Hope simply anglicized the family name). Certain managers' suggestions about plastic surgery on his prominent Roman nose went unattended.

Over the past 35 years, Bennett's considerable reputation has been built on the depth of his repertoire of American popular song -- he'll do as many as 40 songs in a night -- and the skill of his interpretations, what composer and author Alec Wilder described as "a quality that lets you in."

"Being a tunesmith, I try and do such a good job with each song that other singers can do them later on," he explains. "They become good audition songs. You see, when I was younger, I really had a rough time at auditions, and I always used to say, 'If only I could get a good song to impress these people with.' So I try and find songs that would be good at auditions."

And having found them, Bennett must believe their lyrics.

"I was just thinking about that last night," he says, "because my young daughters are here and I must tell them that they should base things on either the truth or more than a half-truth. If they write, if they sing, if they paint, it should be based on something they've experienced in life or something they've felt very strongly about. Because the feeling is in the forefront, that's what communicates to the public. And if it's something you believe in, something you really want to say, and it has a touch of proper philosophy for the masses, that's when it becomes a good thing."

The songs that inspire Tony Bennett, the tunes that matter, were almost always written yesterday.

"I grew up in an era when there were real geniuses around," he says. "Not that there aren't some brilliant guys today, but it's going to be hard for anyone to compete with Art Tatum or Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Fats Waller -- they were all around us, the great entertainers. It was the best era of music in the United States.

"And right before that was the '30s, which is really the kind of music that I love -- the songs of Jerome Kern and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Harry Warren and Harold Arlen, the great composers era that came out of Richard Rodgers."

But, according to Bennett, that golden era ended with the advent of rock 'n' roll.

"Now the accent's on money, where years ago it was on money plus integrity. It's impulse now, impact, let's see how much money we can make from this. In the late '50s, the major record companies started imitating the Detroit syndrome. They went for obsolescence rather than quality -- let's get everybody hot on something and two weeks later come out with the next thing, let's just keep whipping the public rather than waiting to find out what the public likes."

Even though the public still likes Bennett -- a string of sold-out concerts and bookings well into next year confirms that -- it's also true that the champions of popular song (excluding latecomers and pretenders like Linda Ronstadt and Willie Nelson) are seldom honored in the '80s. If he is sometimes outspoken and unyielding in his criticism of today's music, Bennett is a much more effective spokesman for his own genre when he's performing.

"One time when I was a young kid, Perry Como was nice enough to give me his television show for one summer. I'd never met Frank Sinatra, and he was at the Paramount, and I was just starting to become popular so I decided to go see him. Everybody said, watch out, he's tough. He wasn't tough at all, he was wonderful to me.

"I told him I was scared stiff, didn't know how to handle this new medium, television. He said, don't worry about being nervous, the public doesn't mind that. What they don't like is when someone doesn't care. He calmed me down. He said you just show up with something that's quality and money will follow it."

Sinatra was right. Bennett has estimated his income over the past 30 years at somewhere between $50 million and $100 million. "I keep working, I keep making a lot of money," he says, unembarrassed. "I've really been pretty fortunate."

Although two marriages have failed, Bennett's four children are very much involved in his life. Two older sons from his first marriage are also in the music business, managing Dad "for the last seven years. They do a beautiful job. They just want me to sing and paint, and they take care of all of the details. They work hard to make sure nothing rubs my dignity or pierces the vanity."

Painting is a good thing for Bennett's sons to encourage. In the past decade he has made a name for himself as an artist. An old name, in fact: Anthony Benedetto's works sell for as much as $10,000, providing a nice second-career cushion to fall back on.

Bennett recorded 89 albums for Columbia, but in the early '70s, "when the money boys came in, the attorneys and the accountants, they had a completely uncreative attitude. They wanted me to imitate Janis Joplin. I said I sell records. They said, you don't sell enough records. I said, you want me to sell out Madison Square Garden? They said yes, and I said I don't want to compete with Hitler, I don't want to be that popular. I just like to know that the public likes what I'm singing."

Which was not what management wanted to hear. As a result, Bennett had a "falling out" with Columbia. He has not recorded an album for 10 years, although in the early '70s he had his own Improv label. "It was wonderful -- we had Bill Evans, Charlie Byrd, Ruby Braff, Earl Hines, Marian McPartland -- but I couldn't get any distributorship." The current hiatus will end later this year when Bennett records again, probably for Columbia.

Of the long drought, he says he doesn't mind. "I've learned a lot about performing. I've been able to stay on the road, play wonderful places, be in front of the public. For 23 years I had a deadline, three albums a year, and that really took away from just honing what I do on stage. So I took all that energy and put it into performing. I've had a great musical adventure."

And, he adds, "I have this ambition as a performer to try and get better as I get older. Mel Torme, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby -- they did it. Till the day he died, Bing was singing beautifully. It's my ambition to hold on to my equipment and sing well right through the years."

Antonia comes back in with a plate of strawberries and a special brown sugar and cream dip. "She's a giver, all right," Papa Bennett says. "She's always trying to help out.

"She actually sang with Count Basie when she was 9 years old. By the time she gets older, they'll probably be putting up statues of the Count and she'll look back and think, 'Oh God, I actually sang with him!' "

She has not sung often in her father's shows, but the instincts are there.

"I think at first I was very nervous," Antonia confesses, "but after I got more into the song, I felt better."

"That's the right way to feel," says her father, "the exact feeling. She has the butterflies worrying about whether it's going to work out, but when the music starts, she really likes it."

"I'm happy that they like me," Antonia says, "and I'm relieved after."

Tony Bennett nods his head, happiness melting into approval.

"It's the same feeling. That's exactly it."