Tony Bennett, Champion of the Great American Songbook, Is Dead at 96

Tony Bennett followed in the musical path of the greatest American pop singers of the 20th century, and carried the torch for them into the 21st.
Tony Bennett, Champion of the Great American Songbook, Is Dead at 96

From his initial success as a jazzy crooner through his generation-spanning duets, his career was remarkable for both its longevity and its consistency.

by Bruce Weber

Tony Bennett, a singer whose melodic clarity, jazz-influenced phrasing, audience-embracing persona and warm, deceptively simple interpretations of musical standards helped spread the American songbook around the world and won him generations of fans, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan, where he had lived for many decades. He was 96.

His publicist, Sylvia Weiner, announced his death.

Mr. Bennett learned he had Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, his wife, Susan Bennett, told AARP The Magazine in February 2021. He continued to perform and record despite his illness; his last public performance was in August 2021, when he appeared with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall in a show titled “One Last Time.”

Mr. Bennett’s career of more than 70 years was remarkable not only for its longevity, but also for its consistency. In hundreds of concerts and club dates and more than 150 recordings, he devoted himself to preserving the classic American popular song, as written by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hammerstein and others.

From his initial success as a jazzy crooner who wowed audiences at the Paramount in Times Square in the early 1950s, through his late-in-life duets with younger singers gleaned from a range of genres and generations — most notably Lady Gaga, with whom he recorded albums in 2014 and 2021 and toured in 2015 — he was an active promoter of both songwriting and entertaining as timeless, noble pursuits.

Mr. Bennett stubbornly resisted record producers who urged gimmick songs on him, or, in the 1960s and early ’70s, who were sure that rock ’n’ roll had relegated the music he preferred to a dusty bin perused only by a dwindling population of the elderly and nostalgic.

Instead, he followed in the musical path of the greatest American pop singers of the 20th century — Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra — and carried the torch for them into the 21st. He reached the height of stardom in 1962 with a celebrated concert at Carnegie Hall and the release of his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” And though he saw his popularity wane with the onset of rock and his career went through a trough in the 1970s, when professional difficulties were exacerbated by a failing marriage and drug problems, he was, in the end, more than vindicated in his musical judgment.

“I wanted to sing the great songs, songs that I felt really mattered to people,” he said in “The Good Life” (1998), an autobiography written with Will Friedwald.

It’s hard to overstate Mr. Bennett’s lasting appeal. He was still singing “San Francisco” — which led many people to think he was a native of that city, though he was actually a through-and-through New Yorker — more than half a century later. He sang on Ed Sullivan’s show and David Letterman’s. He sang with Rosemary Clooney when she was in her 20s, and Celine Dion when she was in her 20s.
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He made his film debut in 1966, in a critically reviled Hollywood story, “The Oscar,” playing a man betrayed by an old friend. And though he did not pursue an acting career, decades later he was playing himself in movies like the Robert De Niro-Billy Crystal gangster comedy “Analyze This” and the Jim Carrey vehicle “Bruce Almighty.” He was 64 when he appeared as a cartoon version of himself on “The Simpsons.” He was 82 when he appeared on the HBO series “Entourage,” performing one of his trademark songs, “The Good Life.”

A lifelong liberal Democrat, Mr. Bennett participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965, and, along with Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and others, performed at the Stars for Freedom rally on the City of St. Jude campus on the outskirts of Montgomery on March 24, the night before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the address that came to be known as the “How Long? Not Long” speech. At the conclusion of the march, Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer from Michigan, drove Mr. Bennett to the airport; she was murdered later that day by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr. Bennett also performed for Nelson Mandela, then the president of South Africa, during his state visit to England in 1996. He sang at the White House for John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, and at Buckingham Palace at Queen Elizabeth II’s 50th anniversary jubilee.

An ‘Elusive’ Voice

He won his first two Grammy Awards, for “San Francisco,” in 1963, and his last, for the album “Love for Sale,” with Lady Gaga, last year. Altogether there were 20 of them, including, in 2001, a lifetime achievement award. By some estimates, he sold more than 60 million records.

The talent that spawned this success and popularity was not so easy to define. Neither a fluid singer nor an especially powerful one, he did not have the mellifluous timbre of Crosby or the rakish swing of Sinatra. If Armstrong’s tone was distinctively gravelly, Mr. Bennett’s wasn’t quite; “sandy” was more like it. Almost no one denied that his voice was appealing, but critics strove mightily to describe it, and then to justify its appeal.

“The voice that is the basic tool of Mr. Bennett’s trade is small, thin and somewhat hoarse,” John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times in 1962. “But he uses it shrewdly and with a skillful lack of pretension.”

In a 1974 profile, Whitney Balliett, the longtime jazz critic for The New Yorker, called Mr. Bennett “an elusive singer.”

“He can be a belter who reaches rocking fortissimos,” Mr. Balliett wrote. “He drives a ballad as intensely and intimately as Sinatra. He can be a lilting, glancing jazz singer. He can be a low-key, searching supper-club performer.” But, he added, “Bennett’s voice binds all his vocal selves together.”

Most simply, perhaps, the composer and critic Alec Wilder said about Mr. Bennett’s voice, “There is a quality about it that lets you in.”

Indeed, what many listeners (including the critics) discovered about Mr. Bennett, and what they responded to, was something intangible: the care with which he treated both the song and the audience.

He had a storyteller’s grace with a lyric, a jazzman’s sureness with a melody, and in his finest performances he delivered them with a party giver’s welcome, a palpable and infectious affability. In his presentation, the songs he loved and sang — “Just in Time,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “Rags to Riches” and “I Wanna Be Around,” to name a handful of his emblematic hits — became engaging, life-embracing parables.

Frank Sinatra, whom Mr. Bennett counted as a mentor and friend, once put it another way.

“For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business,” he told Life magazine in 1965. “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.”

Mr. Bennett passed through life with as unscathed a public image as it is possible for a celebrity to have. Finding even mild criticism of him in reviews and interviews is no mean feat, and even his outspoken liberalism generally failed to attract vitriol from the right. (An exception was his call, after the drug-related deaths of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, for the legalization of drugs, a view loudly denounced by William J. Bennett, the former drug czar, among others.)

With the possible exception of his former wives, everyone, it seemed, loved Tony Bennett. Skeptical journalists would occasionally try to pierce what they perceived as his perfect veneer, but they generally discovered that there wasn’t much to pierce.

“Bennett is outrageous,” Simon Hattenstone, a reporter for The Guardian, wrote in 2002. “He mythologizes himself, name-drops every time he opens his mouth, directs you to his altruism, is self-congratulatory to the point of indecency. He should be intolerable, but he’s one of the sweetest, most humble men I’ve ever met.”

Son of Queens

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on Aug. 3, 1926, in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, and grew up in that borough in working-class Astoria. His father, Giovanni, had emigrated from Calabria, in southern Italy, at age 11, departing just two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in April 1906. His mother, Anna (Suraci) Benedetto, was born in New York in 1899, having made the sea journey from Italy in the womb. Their marriage was arranged. Giovanni and Anna were cousins; their mothers were sisters.

In New York, where Giovanni Benedetto became John, he was a grocer, but beleaguered by poor health and often unable to work. Anna was a factory seamstress and took in additional sewing to support the family. Anthony was their third child, their second son, and the first of any Benedetto to be born in a hospital. Giovanni, who sang Italian folk songs to his children — “My father inspired my love for music,” Mr. Bennett wrote in his autobiography — died when Anthony was 10.

Anthony sang from an early age, and drew and painted, too. He would become a creditable painter as an adult, mostly landscapes and still lifes in watercolors and oils and portraits of musicians he admired, signing his paintings “Benedetto.” His first music teacher arranged for him to sing alongside Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at the opening of the Triborough Bridge (now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) in 1936.

For a time he attended the High School for Industrial Arts (now called the High School of Art and Design) in Manhattan, but he never graduated. He dropped out and found work as a copy boy for The Associated Press, in a laundry and as an elevator operator.

“I couldn’t figure out how to get the elevator to stop at the right place,” he recalled. “People ended up having to crawl out between floors.”

At night he performed at amateur shows and worked as a singing waiter. He had just begun to get paying work as a singer, using the stage name Joe Bari, when he was drafted.

He arrived in Europe toward the end of World War II, serving in Germany in the infantry. He spent time on the front lines, an experience he described as “a front-row seat in hell,” and was among the troops who arrived to liberate the prisoners at the Landsberg concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau.

After Germany surrendered, Mr. Bennett was part of the occupying forces, assigned to special services, where he ended up as a singer with Army bands and for a time was featured in a ragtag version of the musical “On the Town” — directed by Arthur Penn, who would go on to direct “Bonnie and Clyde” and other notable movies — in the opera house in Wiesbaden.

He returned to New York in August 1946 and set about beginning a career as a musician. On the G.I. Bill, he took classes at the American Theater Wing, which he later said helped teach him how to tell a story in song. He sang in nightclubs in Manhattan and Queens.

A series of breaks followed. He appeared on the radio show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” the “American Idol” of its day. (The competition was won by Rosemary Clooney.) There are different versions of the biggest break in Mr. Bennett’s early career, but as he told it in “The Good Life,” he had been singing occasionally at a club in Greenwich Village where the owner had offered Pearl Bailey a gig as the headliner; she agreed, but only on the condition that Joe Bari stayed on the bill.

When Bob Hope came down to take in Ms. Bailey’s act, he liked Joe Bari so much that he asked him to open for him at the Paramount Theater. Hope had a condition, however: He didn’t like the name Joe Bari, and insisted it be changed. Dismissing the name Anthony Benedetto as too long to fit on a marquee, Hope christened the young singer Tony Bennett.

The Hits Roll In

The producer Mitch Miller signed Mr. Bennett to Columbia Records in 1950; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was his first single. Miller was known for his hit-making prowess, a gift that often involved matching talented singers with novelty songs or having them cover hits by others, for which he was criticized by more serious music fans and sometimes by the singers themselves.

He and Mr. Bennett had a contentious relationship. Mr. Bennett resisted his attempts at gimmickry; Miller, who believed that the producer and not the singer was in charge of a recording, applied his authority. Still, together they achieved grand success.

By mid-1951, Mr. Bennett had his first No. 1 hit, “Because of You.” That same year, his version of the Hank Williams ballad “Cold, Cold Heart” also hit No. 1; three years after Williams died in 1953, Mr. Bennett performed it in his honor at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Other trademark songs followed: “Rags to Riches” in 1953; “Stranger in Paradise,” from the Broadway show “Kismet,” also in 1953; Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Just in Time,” from the show “Bells Are Ringing,” in 1956. That same year, Mr. Bennett was host of his own television variety show, a summer replacement for a similar show that starred another popular Italian American crooner, Perry Como. In 1958, he recorded two albums with the Count Basie band, introducing him to the jazz audience.

In the 1950s, Mr. Bennett toured for the first time, played Las Vegas for the first time and got married for the first time, to Patricia Beech, a fan who had seen him perform in Cleveland. The marriage would founder in the 1960s, overwhelmed by Mr. Bennett’s perpetual touring, but their two sons would end up playing roles in Mr. Bennett’s career: the older one, D’Andrea, known as Danny, became his father’s manager, and Daegal, known as Dae, became a music producer and recording engineer.

In July 1961, Mr. Bennett was performing in Hot Springs, Ark., and about to head to the West Coast when Ralph Sharon, his longtime pianist, played him a song written by George Cory and Douglass Cross that had been moldering in a drawer for two years. Mr. Sharon and Mr. Bennett decided that it would be perfect for their next date, at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, and it was.

They recorded the song — of course it was “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” — six months later, in January 1962. It won Mr. Bennett his first two Grammys, for best male solo performance and record of the year, and worldwide fame. In “The Good Life,” he wrote that he was often asked if he ever tired of singing it.

“I answer, ‘Do you ever get tired of making love?’” he wrote.

Just five months later, Mr. Bennett performed at Carnegie Hall with Mr. Sharon and a small orchestra. He got sensational reviews — though The Times’s was measured — and the recording of the concert is now considered a classic.

But as the 1960s proceeded and rock ’n’ roll became dominant, Mr. Bennett’s popularity began to slip. In 1969, he succumbed to the pressure of the new president of Columbia Records, Clive Davis, to record his versions of contemporary songs, and the result, “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!” — including the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and “Something” — was a musical calamity, a record that Mr. Bennett would later tell an interviewer made him vomit.

His relationship with Columbia soured further and finally ended, and by the middle of the 1970s Mr. Bennett had formed his own company, Improv Records, on which he recorded the first of two of his most critically admired albums, duets with the jazz pianist Bill Evans. (The second one was released on Evans’s label, Fantasy.) Together the two opened the Newport Jazz Festival, which had moved to New York, at Carnegie Hall in 1976.

Improv went out of business in 1977, and without a recording contract Mr. Bennett relied more and more on Las Vegas, then in decline, for regular work. His mother died that year, and the profligate life he had been living in Beverly Hills caught up with him; the Internal Revenue Service was threatening to take his house. His second marriage, a tumultuous one to the actress Sandra Grant, collapsed — she would later say that she would have been better off if she had married her previous boyfriend, Joe DiMaggio — and he had begun using marijuana and cocaine heavily.

One day in 1979, high and in a panic, he took a bath to calm down and nearly died in the tub. In later years he would play down the seriousness of the event, but he wrote about it in “The Good Life,” describing what he called a near-death experience: “A golden light enveloped me in a warm glow. It was quite peaceful; in fact, I had the sense that I was about to embark on a very compelling journey. But suddenly I was jolted out of the vision. The tub was overflowing and Sandra was standing above me. She’d heard the water running for too long, and when she came in I wasn’t breathing. She pounded on my chest and literally brought me back to life.”

Mr. Bennett turned to his older son for help. Danny Bennett took over the management of his career, aiming to have the American musical standards that were his strength, and his handling of them, perceived as hip by a new generation.

Somewhat surprisingly, the strategy took hold. An article in Spin magazine, which was founded in 1985, declared Mr. Bennett and James Brown as the two foremost influences on rock ’n’ roll, and the magazine followed up with a long, admiring profile.

A Career Revival

Encouraged by executive changes at Columbia Records, Mr. Bennett returned to the Columbia fold in 1985. The next year he released the album “The Art of Excellence.” WBCN in Boston became the first rock station to give it regular airplay. Released in the emerging CD format, it spurred the sales of Mr. Bennett’s back catalog as music fans began replacing their vinyl records with CDs.

In 1993, Mr. Bennett was a presenter, along with two members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, at MTV’s Video Music Awards. The next year he gave an hourlong performance for MTV’s “Unplugged” series, which included duets with K.D. Lang (with whom he would later tour) and Elvis Costello. The recording of the show won the Grammy for album of the year.

The revival of Mr. Bennett’s career was complete. Not only had he returned to the kind of popularity he had enjoyed 40 years earlier, but he had also been accepted by an entirely new audience.

He recorded albums that honored musicians he admired — Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday — and he collaborated on standards with singers half, or less than half, his age. On the 2006 album “Duets: An American Classic,” he sang “If I Ruled the World” with Ms. Dion, “Smile” with Barbra Streisand and “For Once in My Life” with Stevie Wonder, and revisited his first Columbia single, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” with Sting. Five years later, on “Duets II,” his collaborators included Aretha Franklin, Queen Latifah, Willie Nelson and Ms. Winehouse.

As the century changed, he was once again touring, giving up to 200 performances a year, and recording prolifically.

In 2007 Mr. Bennett married a third time, to his longtime companion, Susan Crow, a teacher four decades his junior whom he had met in the late 1980s. Together they started a foundation, Exploring the Arts, that supports arts education in schools, and financed the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public high school in Queens.

Mr. Bennett is survived by his wife; his sons Danny and Dae; his daughters Johanna and Antonia Bennett; and 9 grandchildren.

If there was a magical quality to Mr. Bennett’s life, as suggested by David Evanier in a glowing 2011 biography, “All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett,” it is encapsulated by a story Mr. Bennett told to Whitney Balliett in 1974.

“I like the funny things in life that could only happen to me now,” he said. “Once, when I was singing Kurt Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars’ in the Hollywood Bowl with Basie’s band and Buddy Rich on drums, a shooting star went falling through the sky right over my head and everyone was talking about it, and the next morning the phone rang and it was Ray Charles, who I’d never met, calling from New York. He said, ‘Hey, Tony, how’d you do that, man?’ and hung up.”

The New York Times, July 21, 2023


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