World-renowned pop and jazz crooner Tony Bennett recently passed away following a career spanning seven decades during which he won an astonishing 20 Grammy Awards and sold more than 50 million albums. He was 96.
Bennett was perhaps best known for his 1962 signature song, ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’, in addition to maintaining his relevancy well into his senior years, constantly attracting new generations of fans with his smooth delivery, superb showmanship and an awesome self-belief that has inspired many generations of musicians.
He was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on 3 August 1926, in New York City to a father who was a grocer and a mother who was a seamstress. He was the youngest of three children and both of his parents were Italian immigrants who struggled to support their brood during the cruel years of the Great Depression.
Bennett’s father was often in poor health and couldn’t work, yet he was a major influence on his son because of his love of music and literature. Bennett’s father also had a strong sense of social justice and was extremely critical of Republican President Herbert Hoover, making his son a lifelong Democrat.
Bennett grew up with the music of Judy Garland, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong. By the age of 10, Bennett was already a reasonably accomplished singer and famously performed at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in New York City, standing next to the then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who patted him on the head.
Following his father’s death when he was just 10 years old, Bennett found regular work as a singing waiter in several Italian restaurants in Queens. He was greatly encouraged by his uncle, Dick, who was a tap dancer in vaudeville.
Bennett dropped out of school at 16 to help support his family and worked at a range of menial, poorly paid jobs while dreaming about having a professional singing career. He regularly competed in talent quests and enjoyed a successful engagement at a New Jersey nightclub before undergoing what he later described as ‘a front-row seat in Hell’.
In 1944, Bennett was drafted into the U.S. Army and in the final stages of World War II, he experienced bitter combat in often harsh conditions. He claimed to have narrowly escaped death several times and was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp in Germany. The experience made Bennett – already radicalised by his late father’s Left-wing ideas – a lifetime pacifist.
‘Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn’t gone through one,’ wrote Bennett years later.
“It was a nightmare that’s permanent. I just said, ‘This is not life. This is not life.’ I saw things no human being should ever have to see.”
Bennett stayed in Germany as part of the occupying force but was demoted and disgraced when he was found dining with an African-American school friend at a time when the U.S. Army was still racially segregated.
In later years, Bennett was a vocal supporter of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery street marches that brought attention to the plight of African-Americans. He also flat-out refused to perform in South Africa during the apartheid era.
After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1946, Bennett enrolled in the American Theatre Wing on the GI Bill, a scheme that funded war veterans wanting to advance their educations. In 1949, American vaudeville star Pearl Bailey recognised Bennett’s talent and asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope was also part of the show and encouraged Bennett to shorten his name from Anthony Benedetto to Tony Bennett.
In 1950, Bennett cut a version of the 1933 hit ‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ and secured a record contract with Mitch Miller of Columbia Records, who warned Bennett not to try and imitate his then-idol, Frank Sinatra.
Bennett heeded this advice and scored his first hit in 1951 with ‘Because Of You’, a lush recording that topped the pop charts and sold more than a million copies. In the same year, Bennett again topped the charts with a cover of the Hank Williams country song ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ and a Bernie Wayne/Lee Morris song called ‘Blue Velvet’.
At this point in his career, Bennett – like his idol, Frank Sinatra – was attracting screaming fans at all of his gigs at the famed Paramount Theatre in New York, where he performed as many as seven shows a day, starting at 10:30 AM.
In 1953, Bennett achieved a third number-one hit with ‘Rags To Riches’ which featured the up-tempo, big band sound that became his trademark. He also struck gold with ‘Stranger In Paradise’, which became a number-one hit in the UK a year and a half later.
Bennett’s career continued to flourish during the rock and roll era, when the music industry radically changed and it became harder to achieve chart success. He placed eight songs in the Billboard Top 40 during the later part of the 1950s and in 1957, he teamed up with pianist, arranger and musical director Ralph Sharon.
The union proved to be both personally and professionally satisfying with Bennett accepting Sharon’s often frank advice regarding which musical direction he should follow. Sharon told Bennett that there was no future in singing “sweet saccharine songs like ‘Blue Velvet’” and encouraged him to follow his jazz inclinations.
Bennett became the first male pop vocalist to sing with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra and released some truly far-out albums such as Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958) and In Person! (1959). One of the stand-out tracks of this period was ‘Chicago’, originally released in 1922 as ‘Chicago (That Toddling Town)’ and previously performed by Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. It drew on the city’s rich history and was full of thrills.
In 1962, Bennett released his signature song ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’, which won him two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance.
However, as the '60s progressed and the British Invasion – led by The Beatles – began to dominate the charts, Bennett’s career began to decline. He had minor hits with several albums and tried his hand at acting in the 1966 film, The Oscar, which received poor reviews. Bennett reportedly didn’t enjoy the experience and never tried his hand at acting again.
He became increasingly involved in politics, actively supporting the Civil Rights Movement and performing at the “Stars For Freedom” rally the night before Martin Luther King’s “How Long, Not Long” speech. Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five who drove Bennett to the airport following his performance, was later murdered by the Klu Klux Klan.
The 1970s were not kind to Bennett, who started to abuse cocaine and was in serious trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. Following a near-fatal overdose in 1979, Bennett enlisted the help of his two sons, Danny and Dae.
“Look, I’m lost here. It seems like people don’t want to hear the music I make.”
Danny, who – with Dae – had made an unsuccessful foray into music with their forgettable band Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends, turned out to have an excellent head for business.
In the '80s, Bennett decided to clean up his act. He ditched the tired nostalgia circuit in Las Vegas and hired Danny to be his manager. He also reunited with his former pianist and musical director, Ralph Sharon.
This proved to be a masterstroke and resulted in the critically acclaimed comeback album in 1986, The Art Of Excellence. This was followed by Perfectly Frank (1992), a tribute to his early idol Frank Sinatra that topped the jazz charts. Bennett became a regular fixture on the late-night talk show circuit in the United States and collaborated with a range of contemporary artists including Amy Winehouse, Queen Latifah and kd lang.
‘Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises.’
In 1994, Bennett achieved platinum status with MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett and won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. At the time, Bennett said he had no intention of retiring, referring to people such as Fred Astaire, Pablo Picasso and Jack Benny who remained active throughout their senior years.
“Right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older.”
In 1998, Bennett famously appeared at the mud-drenched Glastonbury Festival in an immaculate suit and tie, and the much younger audience loved him for it. He continued to donate to charitable, Left-wing causes and Democrat Party benefits, jokingly referring to himself as “Tony Benefit”.
In 2014, Bennett won the hearts of a much younger generation when he collaborated with Lady Gaga on the album Cheek To Cheek, on which the unlikely pair performed a series of jazz standards. When the album reached number one in the United States, Bennett became the oldest living artist to ever top the charts — a record he has held since 2011 when he released the best-selling album Duets II, on which Lady Gaga also performed. At the time when Cheek To Cheek was released, Bennett was 88 and Lady Gaga was 28.
Lady Gaga said:
“I sang a couple of jazz numbers that night so I was real, real nervous to meet Tony Bennett — plus, I looked crazy. I had blonde in my hair and black in my hair, red lipstick, I had four big velvet moles on my face. I was doing my thing. And I went to meet Mr Bennett and he said, ‘Lady, you are a jazz singer!’”
In 2016, Bennett was diagnosed with the Alzheimer’s that would eventually take his life. However, while his cognitive function was impaired, he was still able to perform his whole repertoire of songs.
In a plucky Twitter post, Bennett wrote:
‘Life is a gift, even with Alzheimer’s.’
Bennett’s passing prompted a flood of tributes from various generations of the music industry.
‘Tony was one of the most splendid people who ever lived. Kind, loving, talented and generous, he never let us down.’
Billy Joel described Bennett as ‘one of the most important interpreters of American popular song during the mid to late 20th Century’.
‘His was a unique voice that made the transition from the era of jazz to the age of pop. I will always be grateful for his outstanding contribution to the art of contemporary music. He was a joy to work with. His energy and enthusiasm for the material he was performing was infectious.’
‘I’m thankful I was alive during his musical reign, to hear and treasure the music he made and the man himself. He will be sorely missed.’
In an interview with the New Yorker in 1974, when his career was flatlining, Bennett nonetheless expressed the self-belief which guided him throughout his career:
I’ve always tried to do the cream of the popular repertoire to remain commercial. Hanging out with good songs is the secret... I love singing too much to cheat the public. And I can’t ever lose that spirit by listening to the money boys, the Broadway wise guys who used to tell me, ‘If you don’t sing such and such, you’ll end up with a classy reputation and no bread in the bank.’ But if I lose that spirit, my feeling for music would run right out the window. It’s this obsolescence thing in America, where cars are made to break down and songs written last two weeks. But good songs last forever, and I’ve come to learn that there’s a whole group out there in the audience that’s studying that with me.
Bennett famously said:
“I think if you have a passion for what you do then there are no limitations on how long or how much you can accomplish.”
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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