Tony Bennett, Titan Of Vocal Interpretation For Over 70 Years, Dies At 96

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Tony Bennett, the beloved singer of American songbook standards whose career spanned more than 70 years, has died at the age of 96, in his home town of New York. The news was confirmed by his publicist Sylvia Weiner in a statement to the Associated Press. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016.

A post on his social media revealed movingly: “Tony left us today but he was still singing the other day at his piano and his last song was, “Because of You,” his first #1 hit. Tony, because of you we have your songs in our heart forever.”

Bennett won 20 Grammy Awards during his long career, beginning with Record of the Year for “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (1962) and including Album of the Year for MTV Unplugged (2004), recorded when Bennett was 68. His career spanned the 1940s, when he rose to fame singing with Bob Hope’s traveling show, to the early 2020s, when he collaborated with pop stars including Lady Gaga.

The constants of his varied career: his smooth and smoky voice, which started as a tenor and deepened thoughtfully with age, and his fondness for Great American Songbook tunes by George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, and more.

‘Look at how Tony makes us feel good’

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in 1926 and grew up in Astoria, Queens. His father, a grocer, died when he was 10 years old; his mother worked as a seamstress. His family was large and, at parties, his uncles would play guitars and mandolins and the young Tony would sing. “They encouraged me,” he told the Telegraph in 2011. “They said, ‘Look at how Tony makes us feel good; he tells jokes and he sings,’ and they created a passion for me that exists to this moment.”

Benedetto took his first job at age 15, as a singing waiter, before serving as a combat infantryman during World War II. He then studied acting and music at New York’s School of Industrial Art on the G.I. Bill. It was in Greenwich Village that Bob Hope saw the young singer opening for Pearl Bailey, after which he took him on tour (and advised him to shorten his name).

In 1950, at age 24, the newly rechristened Tony Bennett signed with Columbia Records and hit No.1 a year later with “Because of You.” Over lush strings, Bennett crooned with great emotion, a style rooted in Italian bel canto ballad singing (a reigning pop style of postwar America before the rise of rock and roll). The sound became his early career staple, and he released many more dramatic love songs in this pre-power ballad vein.

Another key early Bennett hit was his cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1951. Though Bennett resisted recording it at first – “Don’t make me sing cowboy songs!”, he pleaded with producer Mitch Miller – his version, sung lushly over strings, reached number one for six weeks. It is considered today to be the first mainstream radio crossover of a non-novelty country song – a pivotal moment in country and pop history.

Bennett scored a third No.1 hit, “Rags to Riches,” in 1953, and an additional four Top 10 hits through 1959. However, he was going increasingly against the cultural tide. Like many of his generation, Bennett disdained rock’n’roll, not least for the way that its arrival made singers like him instantly passé.

He became known for his advocacy of the Broadway school of songwriting, as it was being replaced on the charts by rock’s simpler style, with fewer chords and more plainspoken lyrics. As a critic for Stereo Review wrote in 1965, of his championing of such music, “He became the principal finder and developer of new writers and new songs. No one in America has done more to see that good songs get heard than Tony Bennett.”

Arrival of a signature

The canonical example came in 1962, during a dry spell on the charts; Bennett hadn’t cracked the Billboard Top 20 in four years. But after his pianist, Ralph Sharon, introduced the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to him – a tune that had been knocking around for a decade without much attention – Bennett recorded it, scored a hit again, and made it a modern-day standard. It’s still considered his signature song.

After “San Francisco,” Bennett hit the Top 20 again in 1963 with a pair of songs that became songbook classics, “I Wanna Be Around” and “The Good Life.” But “If I Ruled the World” (1965) would be his last Top 40 hit. Through the 1960s, Bennett grew tired of the major-label system and the simpler, rock-oriented songs its execs were pushing him to record. “I saw it as a fiasco,” he recalled in 1991. “It became more and more Madison Avenue programming, you know, just a marketing thing.”

Bennett moved to London in the late 1960s. Concentrating more on the artistry of singing and less on marketplace demands, Bennett made some of his finest work in the 1970s, in particular a pair of masterful collaborations with the jazz pianist Bill Evans, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1977).

But the ’70s were also difficult for Bennett, both professionally and personally. He was deep in debt, his bookings reduced mostly to stints in Las Vegas; after Together Again, he didn’t release another album until 1986. He was also addicted to drugs, and his marriage to actress Sandra Grant was falling apart. In 1979, Bennett overdosed on cocaine; he was brought to by Grant, who finalized her divorce from him in 1983.

In the ’80s, Bennett embarked on a comeback. He met Susan Crow, who became his third wife, and his son, Danny, became his manager and brought back his longtime pianist, Ralph Sharon. Together, Bennett’s new team steered him toward thematic albums – Bennett/Berlin (1987), the Sinatra tribute Perfectly Frank (1992), and Steppin’ Out (1993), an album of songs first sung by Fred Astaire – that set the table for Bennett’s MTV Unplugged appearance in 1994.

Unplugged and unleashed

The MTV Unplugged album – an improbable choice for a non-rock artist – was a watershed moment in Bennett’s career. It not only became his first platinum-selling record, it expanded his audience beyond oldies lovers to teenaged MTV viewers. It also won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, establishing Bennett as a new fixture in the pop music scene, where he remained until his 2021 retirement.

From there, Bennett began to record duets of American standards with contemporary artists – just as his mentor, Frank Sinatra, had done late in his career. In 2001, Bennett released Playin’ with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues, a collection of duets with Stevie Wonder, B. B. King, Diana Krall, and others. Duets, from 2006, featured the Dixie Chicks, Elton John, and Celine Dion; five years later, Duets II included Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Lady Gaga.

Bennett and Gaga took a particular shine to one another; they made a pair of albums together, Cheek to Cheek (2014) and Love for Sale (2021). It was an emotional partnership for Gaga, as well as a professional one: “The fact that Tony sees me as a natural-born jazz singer is still something that I haven’t gotten over,” she said. Bennett sang his final pair of shows, with Lady Gaga, at Radio City Music Hall in August 2021; after them, he retired from performing, confirming that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to his late-career burst, Bennett spent much of the 2000s accepting accolades. Among them were a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2005, and the Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment of the Arts in 2006.

It was his hero, Sinatra, who captured him best in 1968. “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business, the best exponent of a song,” Sinatra testified to Billboard. “He excites me when I watch him – he moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more. There’s a feeling in back of it.”

Bennett is survived by his third wife Susan, and his four children, Danny, Dae, Joanna, and Antonia.

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