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Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96

Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96

Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96

 

Tony Bennett, the iconic pop vocalist known for his extraordinary career spanning eight decades and achieving a No. 1 album at the age of 85, passed away on Friday morning in New York City. He was 96 years old.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, Bennett displayed unwavering dedication to his craft, continuing to perform and record until 2021.

Hailed by his contemporary, Frank Sinatra, as the greatest popular singer in the world, Bennett’s recordings, mainly produced for Columbia Records since he signed with them in 1950, exuded ebullience, emotional warmth, vocal clarity, and profound openness. A masterful interpreter of the Great American Songbook, he remains most renowned for his unforgettable 1962 hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96
Bennet at the Grammys in 1995. credit – (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

 

Whether captivating audiences with intimate combos, often accompanied by his longtime musical director and pianist Ralph Sharon, or enchanting them with lushly arranged orchestras, Bennett’s versatility knew no bounds. While not strictly a jazz singer, he thrived in jazz settings and created memorable collaborations with Count Basie’s big band and the lyrical pianist Bill Evans.

Bennett’s musical journey began in 1949 as a recording artist, and he emerged as one of the leading pop performers in the ’50s and early ’60s. He experienced career resurgences in the ’90s and the new millennium, thanks in part to the management expertise of his son Danny.

Even after revealing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in early 2021, Bennett refused to be sidelined. He delivered a moving duet of the standard “Body and Soul” with Amy Winehouse and released a full-length duet album with Diana Krall, in addition to a couple of recordings with Lady Gaga. His last public appearance took place in August 2021 alongside Gaga at Radio City Music Hall, just two months before the release of their chart-topping album “Love for Sale,” a follow-up to their successful 2014 collaboration, “Cheek to Cheek.”

Throughout his career, Bennett demonstrated his ability to appeal to new generations of music enthusiasts. His smartly booked TV appearances connected with younger audiences, leading to his Grammy-winning “MTV Unplugged” album in 1994, released when he was 67. He continued to garner new fans with “Duets” albums in 2006 and 2011, with the latter reaching the pinnacle of the U.S. chart.

In a testament to Bennett’s unprecedented artistic longevity and enduring popularity, critic Will Friedwald mused in “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers” that the notion of a singer of classic show tunes competing with heavy metal and rap would have seemed implausible in the past.

Over his illustrious career, Bennett accumulated an impressive collection of accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards with a total of 36 nominations, a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, two Emmy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honoree title in 2005, and the distinction of being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2006.

Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926, in Astoria, Queens, New York, to Italian immigrant parents, Bennett’s humble beginnings instilled in him a deep appreciation for music and art. Raised in poverty, he discovered his passion for singing at a young age and honed his skills while studying music and painting at New York’s High School of Industrial Art. Throughout his career, Bennett drew inspiration from vocal legends like Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and female vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Judy Garland.

At 18, Bennett served in World War II’s European theater, undertaking combat infantry duties and playing a role in liberating a German concentration camp. Upon returning from service, he continued to pursue his passion for singing, studying voice with Miriam Spier at the American Theatre Wing. In 1949, he recorded his initial tracks under the name “Joe Bari,” but they failed to gain traction.

 

Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96
Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96 / credit – getty

Title: Tony Bennett: A Journey of Musical Triumphs and Artistic Expression

Tony Bennett’s remarkable career in the music industry and his ventures in the art world have left an indelible mark on American culture. His rise to fame began with a series of breakthroughs that elevated his professional profile.

In 1949, Tony appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show, where he secured second place, narrowly edged out by the talented Rosemary Clooney. This exposure led to a significant opportunity when he performed on Jan Murray’s “Songs for Sale” in a 1949 TV appearance. It was during this time that Pearl Bailey, a prominent songstress, took notice of his talent and hired him as an opening act for her club shows. Little did Tony know that his performance at a Greenwich Village venue would catch the attention of none other than Bob Hope. Impressed by the young vocalist’s abilities, Hope took him under his wing, renamed him Tony Bennett (an abbreviation and Americanization of his given name), and included him in his stage show at New York’s famed Paramount Theatre.

In 1950, Tony Bennett’s career took another leap forward when he submitted a demo of Harry Warren’s classic “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to Mitch Miller, the head of A&R at Columbia Records. Miller recognized Tony’s potential and signed him to the label, encouraging him to develop his unique style.

With a string of successes, Tony Bennett’s star continued to rise. A reimagined version of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was followed by three No. 1 pop singles: “Because of You” (1951), a heartfelt rendition of Hank Williams’ country hit “Cold, Cold Heart” (1951), and the infectious “Rags to Riches” (1953). Interestingly, “Rags to Riches” left an enduring impression as it was featured in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster epic “Goodfellas” during its opening credits.

During the 1950s, Tony Bennett solidified his status as a reliable hitmaker at Columbia Records. He released several noteworthy albums, such as “The Beat of My Heart” (1957), a captivating, jazz-infused collection featuring esteemed drummers Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, and Jo Jones. In 1959, groundbreaking collaborations with the Count Basie Orchestra resulted in albums like “Strike Up the Band” and “In Person!” which showcased Bennett’s versatility. Additionally, in 1961, he released “Tony Sings for Two,” an intimate duo recital alongside pianist Sharon, who had been his musical director since 1957.

In a pivotal moment that would define his career, Sharon introduced Tony to the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” written by George Cory and Douglass Cross. Debuting the song during a December 1961 performance at San Francisco’s Venetian Room, it became a turning point for Bennett. Initially released as the B-side of “Once Upon a Time” in 1962, the song gained unexpected popularity when DJs began playing it, propelling the album with the same title to No. 5 on the national charts. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” earned Tony Bennett his first Grammy Awards, securing record of the year and best male solo vocal performance.

Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96
Tony Bennett,American Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96 /credit – getty

In the years that followed, Tony Bennett continued to impress with his musical prowess. A landmark concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962, accompanied by Sharon’s trio, was followed by top 20 hits like “I Wanna Be Around” and “The Good Life” in 1963. However, the rise of rock music on the charts shook Bennett’s career, compounded by Sharon’s departure from his employ in 1965 and Columbia Records’ attempts to modernize his sound. The result was a period of misbegotten albums and singles that struggled to chart. As a result, Bennett parted ways with the label in 1971.

Undeterred, he ventured into a brief but unproductive association with MGM Records before launching his own label, Improv. During this time, Bennett produced a much-admired two-LP set of Rodgers & Hart songs and two celebrated duo albums with Bill Evans, both of which became classics of vocal art. Unfortunately, due to distribution challenges, Improv faltered in 1977.

Despite the ups and downs of his musical career, Tony Bennett’s talents extended beyond the stage. He gained recognition as a painter, earning admiration from acclaimed artist David Hockney and showcasing his work in galleries worldwide. Notably, his rendition of New York’s Central Park found a place in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Bennett also published books on his art and co-wrote his autobiography, “The Good Life,” with Will Friedwald in 1998.

Throughout his career, Tony Bennett received multiple primetime Emmys for his captivating recitals, including “Live by Request” (1996) and “An American Classic” (2007). He even explored acting, making appearances on the ’60s detective show “77 Sunset Strip” and playing a featured role in “The Oscar” (1966).

As the years went on, Tony Bennett’s tenor voice evolved into a burnished, grainy baritone, but his interpretive skills remained impeccable. The crowning achievements of his later years were his two “Duets” collections, where he fearlessly collaborated with a wide array of much younger stars. His second “Duets” album topped the charts in September 2011 with an impressive debut week of 179,000 copies sold, making Tony Bennett the oldest artist in history to release a No. 1 album.

Tony Bennett’s legacy extends beyond his artistry and music; he leaves behind his wife, Susan Benedetto, and a loving family, including his sons Danny and Dae Bennett, daughters Johanna Bennett and Antonia Bennett, and nine grandchildren. His impact on the world of music and art will be cherished and celebrated for generations to come.

 

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