The Unseen Journey of Tony Bennett: Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96

Tony Bennett, a great pop performer whose career spanned eight decades and who, at age 85, had a No. 1 album, passed away on Friday morning in New York City. He was 96.

Bennett was given an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis in 2016, yet he kept on performing and recording until 2021.

Tony Bennett

Introduction

Tony Bennett was referred to as the world’s most popular vocalist by his colleague Frank Sinatra. He was signed by Columbia Records in 1950, and the majority of his songs were done for that label. His records were distinguished by ebullience, enormous warmth, vocal clarity, and emotional openness. He was a talented and technically proficient singer of the Great American Songbook, but his 1962 hit song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” may have made him most famous.

About Tony Bennett

Both small ensembles (frequently featuring his pianist and longstanding musical director Ralph Sharon) and elaborate orchestras were as comfortable in front of him. Although he was never really a jazz singer, he excelled in jazz environments and recorded notable sessions with the lyric pianist Bill Evans and the big band Count Basie.
One of the top pop artists in the 1950s and early 1960s, active as a recording artist since 1949, Bennett saw his career take off once more in the 1990s and again in the new millennium, managed by his son Danny.

Later in life, he famously performed “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse in a duet. He also recorded two songs with Lady Gaga and published a full-length duet album with Diana Krall. He continued to stay active even after it was revealed in early 2021 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
In August 2021, two months before his most recent album, Bennett-Gaga’s “Love for Sale,” the follow-up to their #1 chart-topping 2014 duet “Cheek to Cheek,” he made his final public engagement at Radio City Music Hall with Gaga.
Bennett’s 1994 “MTV Unplugged” record, which was released when he was 67 years old, earned a Grammy for album of the year after attracting a youthful, fresh audience through shrewdly scheduled TV appearances. Two “Duets” albums were released in 2006 and 2011.

Biography

In “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” critic Will Friedwald reflected on Bennett’s extraordinary artistic longevity and enduring appeal, stating that “the idea that someone who sang the great show tunes of the Eisenhower era and earlier could compete with heavy metal and rap would have previously seemed fodder for one of those rapidly aging comics who opened for Sinatra.”
Bennett won two Emmy Awards in addition to 18 Grammy Awards (out of a possible 36 nominations) and the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. In 2005, the Kennedy Centre honored him, and in 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master.

The simplest way to describe Tony Bennett’s appeal across generations is to quote composer and critic Alec Wilder, who said of Bennett’s singing, “There is a quality about it that lets you in.”

Personal information

Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926, to Italian immigrants; his mother was a seamstress and his father was a grocery store owner. He was raised in poverty, started singing at a young age, and attended the High School of Industrial Art in New York to study both music and his other great passion, painting. Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and subsequently Frank Sinatra, as well as female vocalists like Billie Holiday and Judy Garland, were inspirations for his vocal style.

Tony Bennett was drafted in 1944 at the age of 18 and participated in the European theatre of World War II as an infantry combat soldier, freeing a German concentration camp. He performed as a singer in a military band after the war was over.

Tony Bennett studied voice with Miriam Spier in the American Theatre Wing after leaving the military. For indie Leslie Records, he cut his initial, unsuccessful sides in 1949 under the name “Joe Bari.”

Tony Bennett’s professional standing increased after a string of breaks. An appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s talent contest, where he finished second to Rosemary Clooney, led to a 1949 television appearance on Jan Murray’s “Songs for Sale.”

Bob Hope was present at the Greenwich Village venue to see him perform after Pearl Bailey, a singer, recruited him as a club opener as a result of that appearance. Hope took the young singer under his wing, gave him the new name Tony Bennett (an Americanization of his given name), and recruited him for his stage production at the Paramount Theatre in New York.

Mitch Miller, the president of A&R at Columbia Records, recruited Bennett to the label after Tony Bennett sent him a demo of Harry Warren’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in 1950. Miller also urged Bennett to create his own so

Bob Hope was present at the Greenwich Village venue to see him perform after Pearl Bailey, a singer, recruited him as a club opener as a result of that appearance. Hope took the young singer under his wing, gave him the new name Tony Bennett (an Americanization of his given name), and recruited him for his stage production at the Paramount Theatre in New York.

Mitch Miller, the president of A&R at Columbia Records, recruited Bennett to the label after Tony Bennett sent him a demo of Harry Warren’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in 1950. Miller also urged Bennett to create his own sound.

Achievements

  • An updated version of “Boulevard” was followed by three No. 1 pop singles: “Because of You” (1951), a replica of Hank Williams’ country hit “Cold, Cold Heart” (1951), and the jubilant “Rags to Riches” (1953). The latter song is infamous for being played over the opening credits of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film “Goodfellas.”
  • Tony Bennett served as Columbia’s steady hitmaker in the 1950s, albeit not a top-tier one. He released a number of notable records, including “The Beat of My Heart” (1957), a percussion-driven jazz album with drummers Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, and Jo Jones; “Strike Up the Band” and “In Person!” (1959), both ground-breaking collaborations with the Count Basie Orchestra; and “Tony Sings for Two” (1961), a private duo recital with pianist Sharon, who joined Bennett as musical director in 1957.
  • The song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” written by George Cory and Douglass Cross, was introduced to Tony Bennett’s tour book by Sharon. The song made its debut on an engagement in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room in December 1961, and it was released as the B-side of “Once Upon a Time” in 1962. When DJs started playing the flip side, the album with the same title surged to No. 5 nationally even though the song only managed to reach No. 19 on the singles chart. With the song, Bennett earned his first Grammy, taking home awards for outstanding male solo vocal performance and record of the year.
  • Following Sharon’s trio’s historic Carnegie Hall performance in 1962, the top 20 songs “I Wanna Be Around” and “The Good Life” were released in 1963. Although the rise of rock in the charts rattled Bennett’s career, Sharon leaving his employ in 1965 further unmoored him, and he resisted Columbia’s attempts to “contemporize” his sound. Bennett parted ways with the company in 1971 after a string of misguided albums and singles that barely managed to reach the lowest levels of the chart.
  • After a short-lived and fruitless relationship with MGM Records, Bennett founded his own label, Improv. He recorded two acclaimed duo albums with Bill Evans during this time, both of which are considered masterpieces of vocal art, as well as a beloved two-LP set of Rodgers & Hart tunes.
  • When Danny Bennett took over management of his father’s career in 1980, Bennett was at a very low point. He had no label or manager, was going through a contentious divorce with his second wife, was being pursued by the IRS, and was struggling with a dangerous cocaine addiction.
  • A renaissance followed. By having his son make bookings for him on cutting-edge TV shows like “The David Letterman Show” and the MTV Video Music Awards (with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers), Bennett was able to reach a new audience that was, at most, only vaguely familiar with his prior work. When he went back to Columbia Records, he began a special run of concept albums and continued his collaboration with Ralph Sharon. He made a comeback to the charts with the critically acclaimed album “The Art of Excellence” (1986).
  • With the Grammy-winning songs “Perfectly Frank” (1992) and “Steppin’ Out” (1993), which paid homage to Sinatra and Fred Astaire, respectively, he cemented his burgeoning fame. His successful “MTV Unplugged” program and album were preceded by a hip-hop-inspired video for the title track from the latter album.
  • Through the 1990s and into the new millennium, Tony Bennett maintained his status as a consistent Grammy winner in the traditional pop vocal category with well-liked albums honoring female vocalists, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and the blues. In 2002, he recorded “A Wonderful World,” a duet with K.D. Lang won a Grammy. In 2008, he once again performed with the Basie band for “A Swingin’ Christmas.”
  • Tony Bennett’s reputation as a painter also increased as his musical career maintained its fall surge. David Hockney, a painter, was one of his close friends and fans. His artwork was shown in galleries all over the world, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. currently displays his depiction of New York’s Central Park. In 1996 and 2007, he wrote books about his work. (A co-authored autobiography, “The Good Life,” was published in 1998.)
  • For his recitals “Live by Request” (1996) and “An American Classic” (2007), Bennett won primetime Emmys. With performances in the 1960s detective program “77 Sunset Strip” and a prominent part in “The Oscar” (1966), he dabbled in acting.
  • Tony Bennett never lost his interpretive abilities, even as his sparkling, soar-high tenor darkened into a burnished, gritty baritone in the later years of his career. On his two “Duets” albums, which challengingly placed him with a panoply of much younger stars, his continuing mobility was never better shown. Bennett became the oldest performer in history to have an album debut at No. 1 after the second collection’s 179,000-copy launch week in September 2011 made it to the top of the charts.

Family detail: Tony Bennett

  • His wife Susan Benedetto
  • two sons Danny and Dae Bennett
  • daughters Johanna and Antonia Bennett
  • nine grandchildren remain to mourn his passing.

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