Tony Bennett dies aged 96: Legendary crooner best known for ‘rags to riches’ and his performances with Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga, sold millions of records worldwide

Tony Bennett dies aged 96: Legendary crooner best known for 'rags to riches' and his performances with Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga, sold millions of records worldwide

Iconic crooner Tony Bennett has died aged 96 – just two weeks short of his 97th birthday.

The legendary musician, who enjoyed a decade-long career during which he collaborated with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga – died on Friday in his hometown of New York, his publicist Sylvia Weiner confirmed.

No cause of death was given, but Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

Last of the great saloon singers of the mid-20th century, Bennett often said his lifelong ambition was to ‘make a hit catalog rather than a hit record.’

During his lifetime, he released more than 70 albums and earned 19 Grammy Awards – all but two after reaching his 60s – and enjoyed the adoration of millions of fans around the world.

Legendary crooner Tony Bennett has died at the age of 96

Bennett did not tell his own story while acting; He let the music do the talking instead – the Gershwins and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

Unlike his friend and mentor Sinatra, he interpreted rather than embodied a song.

If his songs and public life lacked Sinatra’s high drama, Bennett appealed with an easy, courtly manner and an unusually rich and sustained voice.

‘A tenor who sings like a baritone,’ he called himself, a skill that made him adept at caressing a ballad or brightening an up-tempo number.

In 2006 he told The Associated Press, ‘I enjoy entertaining the audience, making them forget their problems.’ ‘I think people… if they listen to something that’s sincere and honest and maybe has a bit of a sense of humour. … I want to please people when I perform.’

Bennett was often praised by his peers, but none more meaningfully than what Sinatra said in a 1965 Life magazine interview: ‘For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I see him. He moved me. He is a singer who embodies what the composer has in mind and perhaps a bit more.’

He not only survived the rise of rock music but endured so long and so well that he gained new fans and collaborators, some young enough to be his grandchildren. In 2014, aged 88, Bennett broke his own record as the oldest living performer with a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart for his duet project ‘Chick to Chick’ with Lady Gaga. Three years ago, he topped the charts with ‘Duets II’, his last studio recording featuring contemporary stars such as Gaga, Carrie Underwood and Amy Winehouse. Her relationship with Winehouse was captured in the Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Amy’, in which Bennett patiently encourages the insecure young singer through a performance of ‘Body and Soul’.

Her final album, ‘Love for Sale’, released in 2021, featured a duet with Lady Gaga on the title track, ‘Night and Day’ and other Porter songs.

For Bennett, one of the few performers to move easily between pop and jazz, such collaborations were part of his crusade to expose new audiences to what he calls the Great American Songbook.

In a 2015 interview with Downbeat magazine, Bennett said, ‘No country has given the world so much great music. ‘Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern. Those songs will never die.’

Ironically, his most famous contributions came via two unknowns, George Corey and Douglas Cross, who gave Bennett his signature songs in the early ’60s when his career was stalling. They gave Bennett’s musical director, pianist Ralph Sharon, some sheet music that he stuck in a dresser drawer and forgot about until packing for a tour with a stop in San Francisco.

‘Ralph found some sheet music in his shirt drawer… and on top of the pile was a song called ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’. Ralph thought it would be good material for San Francisco,’ Bennett said. ‘We were rehearsing and the bartender at the club in Little Rock, Arkansas said, ‘If you record that song, I’m going to be the first to buy it.’

Released in 1962 as the B-side to the single ‘Once Upon a Time’, the reflective ballad became a grassroots phenomenon, staying on the charts for over two years and earning Bennett his first two Grammys with record of the year.

By her early 40s, she was seemingly out of fashion. But after turning 60, an age when even the most popular artists often settle for pleasing their older fans, Bennett and his son and manager, Danny, found creative ways to market the singer to the MTV generation. He made guest appearances on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ and became a celebrity guest artist on ‘The Simpsons’. He wore a black T-shirt and sunglasses with Red Hot Chili Peppers as a presenter at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards, and his own video for ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ from his Grammy-winning Fred Astaire tribute album ended up in MTV’s hip ‘Buzz Bin’.

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