He was the singer revered by other lounge lizards as ‘The Governor’ and one of the last living links to an era of classic crooners.
Tony Bennett’s death at age 96 on Friday marked the end of an extraordinary musical career that spanned seven decades, more than 70 albums and 19 Grammy Awards.
Bennett, the last of the great nightclub singers of the mid-20th century, was as famous for singing classics as he was for creating new standards like ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’.
Compared early in his career to his friend and mentor Frank Sinatra, Bennett tried to distance himself at first, but eventually followed the same path as other crooners before him — singing in nightclubs, on television and in movies.
Later in life, he enjoyed a resurgence of popularity with younger audiences through a collection of duets with Lady Gaga — who became his friend and tour mate, along with other young stars who flocked to partner with the singing legend.
Compared to his friend and mentor Frank Sinatra (left) early in his career, Bennett initially tried to distance himself, but eventually followed a similar path.
Singers Sammy Davis Jr. (left) and Tony Bennett are seen performing on a television show circa 1960.
Born in 1926 in the Astoria area of Queens, New York, Anthony Dominic Benedetto first began acting at the age of 13, when he worked as a singing waiter in several Italian restaurants in the neighborhood.
After seeing combat in the army during the final stages of World War II in Europe, Benedetto toured with comedian Bob Hope, who first suggested Tony Bennett simplify his name.
In 1950, Bennett signed with Columbia Records after a demo of Broken Dreams’ classic hit Boulevard.
Bennett’s powerful stage presence proved to be one of his greatest qualities.
With a welcoming smile and dapper suit, he sang with a firm, clearly articulated voice with gusto and a smooth vibrato, which he kept in shape through training in the operatic bel canto tradition.
Beginning with his first big hit ‘Because of You’ in 1951, Bennett sang dozens of chart-toppers, including ‘Rags to Riches’ and ‘Stranger in Paradise’.
His signature tune ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ earned him his first two Grammy Awards in 1962 for Record of the Year and Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male.
In a 1965 interview, Sinatra cemented Bennett’s star status by calling him ‘the best singer in the business’.
‘He excites me when I see him. He moved me. He’s a singer who conveys what the composer has in mind and maybe a little more,’ said Sinatra.
Tony Bennett appeared on his TV show in 1963 with Judy Garland
Dean Martin (left) appears with singer Tony Bennett on Martin’s Show circa 1965
Singers Diana Ross and Tony Bennett are seen at a film premiere in London in 1973
Bennett performed with Count Basie in Las Vegas in the 1970s
Singers Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett pose for a portrait in tuxedos in front of a gold curtain in Reno, Nevada in July 1980
Bennett later told the Guardian of Sinatra’s comments: ‘He was 10 years older than me and he was my idol, and when he announced that I was his favorite singer, it made all his fans come and check me out. I’ve been sold ever since.’
Although he was close friends with Sinatra, Bennett was never part of Sinatra’s ‘Rat Pack’ crew, saying he didn’t have the energy to party with the group of entertainers who first came together as Humphrey Bogart’s drinking buddies.
‘I wasn’t in the rat pack,’ Bennett once told the Express. ‘Twas my singing and my painting, And with the hours they kept—Oh! – It’s just like I wasn’t in that scene.’
As the rock era dawned in the mid-1950s, Bennett moved away from pop music towards jazz, working with some of the genre’s top names and recording ‘Bessie Swings, Bennett Sings’ with the Count Basie Orchestra.
He drew his material from jazz and the works of writers such as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
But the British Invasion, led by The Beatles, initially influenced the singer, whose music suddenly seemed strange and archaic.
In 1970, studio officials pressured him to record an album of cover songs by The Beatles and other contemporary artists, titled ‘Tony Sings the Greatest Hits of Today!’
Bennett, who appeared uncharacteristically on the album’s cover wearing bell bottoms and a paisley ascot, described it as a low point in his career, saying some of the songs made him ‘physically nauseous’.
He nearly died of a cocaine overdose in 1979 and eventually revived his career by returning to his roots as a classic crooner.
Bennett told British culture magazine Clash, ‘When it came to rap or disco, whatever was the new fad at the moment, I wasn’t trying to find something that was the style of the whole music scene.
‘I’m just being myself and singing sincerely and trying to be honest with myself — never compromising, just singing the best I can think of for the public.
‘And luckily it just paid off.’
Tony Bennett, left, accepts the Century Award from Stevie Wonder at the 2006 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas
Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse attend the Tony Bennett Concert After Show Party at the Royal Albert Hall on July 1, 2010 in London, England
Singers Celine Dion and Tony Bennett pose backstage during a Sinatra tribute concert in Las Vegas in 2015
Tony Bennett performs on stage during an all-star concert celebrating the late Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday in Las Vegas in 2015
In the early 1990s, Bennett — his style and appearance little changed from the 1960s, except for more gray hair — appeared in music videos on MTV and sang warm-ups at concerts by alternative rock giants like the Smashing Pumpkins and Porno for Pyros.
Evidence that Bennett was back came in 1993 when he presented an award at the MTV Video Music Awards with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who praised his cool factor and sang part of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’.
His career remained only mediocre, and a decade later, he released three successful albums of duets. One of them, ‘Body and Soul’, he sang with Amy Winehouse on his last recording before his death at the age of 27 in 2011.
Her relationship with Winehouse was captured in the Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Amy,’ which shows Bennett patiently encouraging the insecure young singer through a performance.
Partners on his popular ‘Duets’ album range from former Beatle Paul McCartney and Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to country star Willie Nelson and U2’s Bono.
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.
He marked his 90th birthday with a star-studded concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, which turned into a television special and album.
The title is taken from one of Bennett’s popular songs: ‘The Best is at Too Come.’
Bennett and Lady Gaga perform their New Year’s Eve concert together, complete with countdown to midnight, on December 31, 2014 in Las Vegas.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga perform live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in 2021
Bennett, the last nightclub singer of the mid-20th century, has died aged 96
Bennett toured the US and Europe in his last decade and played a show in New Jersey on March 11, 2020, before pandemic lockdowns halted live performances.
Soon after, he revealed that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. He kept his condition in check for years and continued to record and perform, despite the diagnosis.
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.
At age 95, Bennett played two more birthday concerts in August 2021, again with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall — shows billed as her farewell to New York, and what turned out to be her final live performances.
He then canceled the rest of his 2021 tour dates ‘on doctor’s orders’.
‘And let the music play as long as there’s a song to sing / And I’ll be younger than spring,’ he sang during the first performance of his farewell show, his ballad ‘This Is All I Ask.’
‘You’ve been a good audience,’ Bennett said before his encore. ‘I love this audience.’
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