- Tony Bennett passed away on Friday in New York. He was 96 years old.
- Likened from the beginning of his career to Frank Sinatra, Bennett first tried to distance himself but eventually followed much of the same path as other singers in the past—singing in nightclubs, on television and in movies, though his attempts at acting ended quickly.
- With a welcoming smile and elegant suit, he sang with gusto and a soft vibrato in a strong, clear voice, which he kept fit by training from the operatic bel canto tradition.
Tony Bennett died Friday in New York, the last in a generation of classic American singers whose relentlessly cheery spirit bridged generations to make him a hitmaker across seven decades. He was 96 years old.
Raised in an era when major bands defined American pop, Bennett achieved an unlikely second act when he began capturing young audiences in the ’90s—not by reinventing himself but by demonstrating his sheer, standard-setting joy.
Then at age 88, in 2014 Bennett became the oldest person to ever reach number one on the US album sales chart through a set of duets with Lady Gaga — who became his friend and touring companion, but just one of a long list of young stars who were quick to work with stellar vocals.
Bennett’s publicist, Sylvia Weiner, announced his death.
Likened from the beginning of his career to Frank Sinatra, Bennett first tried to distance himself but eventually followed much of the same path as other singers in the past—singing in nightclubs, on television and in movies, though his attempts at acting ended quickly.
His stage presence proved his talent.
With a welcoming smile and elegant suit, he sang with gusto and a soft vibrato in a strong, clear voice, which he kept fit by training from the operatic bel canto tradition.
Starting with his recording of the song for the movie Because of you In 1951, Bennett sang dozens of hit songs incl rags to richesAnd stranger in paradise And in what would become his signature tune, I left my heart in San Franciscofor which he won two of his nineteen Grammy Awards in his career.
But the British invasion led by the Beatles initially affected the singer, whose music suddenly seemed strange and archaic. He nearly died of a cocaine overdose in 1979 before finally waking up and reviving his career.
“When rap came out, or disco, whatever the new fad was at the moment, I didn’t try to find something that would fit whatever style of the whole music scene,” Bennett told British culture magazine Clash.
“I stayed myself, sang wholeheartedly, and tried to stay true to myself — never complacency, just doing the best songs I could think of for the audience. Thankfully, it paid off.”
Singing as a difficult youth
Tony Bennett—his stage name came after advice from Bob Hope—was born Anthony Dominic Benedetto in the Astoria neighborhood of New York’s Queens borough.
His father was a struggling grocer who emigrated from the Calabria region in southern Italy, to which her mother also traces her ancestry.
He showed early promise as an entertainer, singing at the age of nine next to legendary New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia when the city’s Triboro Bridge, now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, officially opened.
But the death of his father at the age of 10, at a time when the United States was still struggling to get out of the Great Depression, prompted him to drop out of school and earn money through jobs including singing in Italian restaurants and caricature, which remained a lifelong profession.
During World War II, Bennett was drafted into the 63rd Infantry Division and sent to France and Germany. But he was demoted after insulting a Southern officer who objected to Bennett dining with an African-American friend in the then-segregated Army.
As punishment, Bennett spent his tour of duty exhuming and shipping bodies. But after the Allied victory, Bennett found an unexpected break into the music while waiting with colleagues in Wiesbaden, Germany, to fly home.
With the city’s opera house still intact, a US Army band put on a weekly show broadcast on military radio throughout Germany. Regarded as the band’s librarian, Bennett quickly took a liking to his voice and became one of four vocalists.
“During this time in the army,” Bennett later wrote in his autobiography, “I enjoyed the greatest musical freedom of my life.” The good life.
“I could sing whatever I wanted,” he wrote, “and there was no one to tell me anything different.”
Outspoken against racism and war
When he returned to the United States, he took formal singing lessons through the American Soldiers Act, which covered the educational expenses of the returning troops.
His experiences made Bennett a lifelong liberal. He became particularly angry in the 1950s when he played in Miami with jazz pioneer Duke Ellington, who was not allowed to attend a press gala due to hotel segregation.
In a risky move then for a popular artist, he accepted an invitation from singer Harry Belafonte to join civil rights icon Martin Luther King in a 1965 march from Selma, Alabama in support of equal voting rights for African Americans.
He later wrote in his diary that the hostility of the White State forces reminded him of Nazi Germany.
He was also an outspoken opponent of the war, which sometimes caused controversy.
“The first time I saw a dead German was when I became a pacifist,” he told popular radio host Howard Stern days after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
He was also very supportive of the anti-apartheid movement. In 1983, sixty American entertainers and athletes launched an unprecedented campaign to refuse to perform in South Africa, per Washington Post.
The group, led by Belafonte and Arthur Ashe, includes Bennett, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Tony Randall, Muhammad Ali, and Wilt Chamberlain among others. Their aim was to obtain pledges from thousands of their colleagues to join the boycott of South Africa’s strict apartheid policies.
Late in life, still cold
Bennett has been married three times and has four children including Antonia Bennett, who followed his path as a singer of pop and jazz standards.
But his son Danny Bennett had a huge role in his father’s career, aggressively flirting with MTV and other players in the pop world as his father’s manager.
By the early 1990s, Bennett—his style and appearance little from the 1960s, except for more gray hair—was appearing in music videos on MTV and singing warm-up at concerts for alternative rock giants like the Smashing Pumpkins and Porno for Pyros.
Evidence of Bennett’s comeback came in 1993 when he presented an award at the MTV Video Music Awards alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who praised his cool factor and playfully sang part of I left my heart in San Francisco.
His career only continued to build and a decade later, he released three successful duo albums. on one of them, body and soulHe sang with Amy Winehouse on her last recording before her death in 2011 at the age of 27.
He celebrated his 90th birthday with a star-studded concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, which was turned into an album and TV special.
The title is taken from a song popularized by Bennett, The best is yet to come.
Bennett has toured the US and Europe in his last decade, playing his last public performance before the coronavirus pandemic halted his New Jersey tour on March 11, 2020.
Soon after, he revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. He had kept his condition quiet for years.
Upon turning 95, Bennett played two more Christmas concerts, again at Radio City Music Hall, with Lady Gaga – her New York farewell performances.
He then canceled the remainder of his 2021 tour dates on “doctor’s orders”.
“And let the music play as long as there is a song to sing / And I shall be younger than spring,” he exclaimed during the first of his farewell performances, in a performance of his ballad That’s all I ask.
“I was a good audience,” Bennett said before his appearance. “I love this audience.”