Tony Bennett, master stylist of American music standards, dies at 96

New York • Tony Bennett, the preeminent and timeless stylist whose devotion to classic American songs and talent for creating new standards like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” shaped a decades-long career that earned him admirers from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga, died Friday. He was 96 years old just two weeks before his birthday.

Publicist Sylvia Weiner confirmed Bennett’s death to The Associated Press, saying he died in his hometown of New York. There was no specific cause, but Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

Bennett, the last of the great saloon singers of the mid-20th century, often said his lifelong goal had been “to create a hit catalog, not hit records.” He released more than 70 albums that earned him 19 competitive Grammys – all but two after turning 60 – and has enjoyed deep and enduring affection from fans and fellow artists.

Bennett didn’t tell his own story when he performed; Instead, he let the music do the talking—the Gershwins and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Unlike his friend and mentor Sinatra, he interpreted a song rather than embodying it. Though his singing and public life lacked the high drama of Sinatra, Bennett impressed with an easy, suave manner and an unusually rich and long-lived voice—“A tenor who sings like a baritone,” he called himself—that made him adept at stroking a ballad or brightening up a fast number.

“I enjoy entertaining audiences and making them forget their problems,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “I think people…are touched when they hear something that’s sincere, honest, and maybe has a little sense of humor.”…I just like to make people feel good when I’m performing.”

Bennett was often praised by his peers, but never more meaningfully than by what Sinatra said in a 1965 interview with Life magazine: “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business.” He excites me watching him. he moves me He’s the singer who gets across what the composer is up to, and probably a little bit more than that.”

Not only did he survive the rise of rock music, but he endured it so long and so well that he gained new fans and collaborators, some of whom were young enough to be his grandchildren. In 2014, at age 88, Bennett broke his own record as the oldest living artist with a #1 album on the Billboard 200 for “Cheek to Cheek,” his duet project with Lady Gaga. Three years earlier he topped the charts with “Duets II” featuring contemporary stars like Gaga, Carrie Underwood and Amy Winehouse in their last studio recording. His relationship with Winehouse was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary Amy, in which Bennett patiently encouraged the insecure young singer by performing “Body and Soul.”

His latest album, the 2021 release Love for Sale, featured duets with Lady Gaga on the title track, “Night and Day,” and other Porter songs.

For Bennett, one of the few performers who could easily move between pop and jazz, such collaborations were part of his crusade to bring what he called the “Great American Songbook” to new audiences.

“No country has given the world such great music,” Bennett said in a 2015 interview with Downbeat Magazine. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern. These songs will never die.”

Ironically, his most famous contribution came from two unknowns, George Cory and Douglass Cross, who provided Bennett with his signature song in the early ’60s when his career was in the doldrums. They gave Bennett’s musical director, pianist Ralph Sharon, some sheet music, which he stashed in a dresser drawer and forgot until he packed for a tour that included a stop in San Francisco.

“Ralph saw some sheet music in his shirt drawer… and on top of the stack was a song called ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco.'” “Ralph thought it would be good San Francisco material,” Bennett said. “We were rehearsing and the bartender at the club in Little Rock, Arkansas said, ‘If you record this song, I’ll be the first to buy it.'”

Released as the B-side of the 1962 single “Once Upon a Time,” the reflective ballad went on to become a grassroots phenomenon, staying on the charts for more than two years and earning Bennett his first two Grammys, including Record of the Year.

In his early 40s, it seemed to have gone out of fashion. But after turning 60, an age when even the most popular artists are often content to only please their older fans, Bennett and his son and manager Danny found creative ways to market the singer to the MTV generation. He guest-starred on Late Night with David Letterman and became a celebrity guest artist on The Simpsons. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers host at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards, he wore a black T-shirt and sunglasses, and his own video of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” from his Grammy-winning Fred Astaire tribute album landed on MTV’s hit Buzz Bin.

This led to an offer in 1994 to film an episode of “MTV Unplugged” with special guests Elvis Costello and kd lang. The evening’s performance led to the album Tony Bennett: MTV Unplugged, which won two Grammys including Album of the Year.

Bennett would win Grammys for his tributes to female singers (“Here’s to the Ladies”), Billie Holiday (“Tony Bennett on Holiday”) and Duke Ellington (“Bennett Sings Ellington – Hot & Cool”). He also won Grammys for his collaborations with other singers: “Playin’ With My Friends – Bennett Sings the Blues” and his tribute to Louis Armstrong “A Wonderful World” with Lang, the first full album he ever recorded with another singer. He celebrated his 80th birthday with “Duets: An American Classic” with, among others, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.

“They’re all giants in the industry and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘You’re the master,'” Bennett told the AP in 2006.

Bennett had long been associated with San Francisco and noted that his true home was Astoria, the working-class community in New York’s Queens borough where he grew up during the Great Depression. The singer chose his old neighborhood as the site for the “Fame”-style public high school, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, which he and his third wife, Susan Crow Benedetto, a former teacher, co-founded in 2001.

The school is not far from the birthplace of the man whose name was Anthony Dominick Benedetto. His father was an Italian immigrant who sparked his love of singing, but he died when Anthony was 10 years old. Bennett credited his mother Anna for teaching him a valuable lesson as he watched her work at home and support her three children as a seamstress on piecework after his father died.

“We were very impoverished,” Bennett said in a 2016 AP interview. “I’d see her working and every now and then she’d take a dress and throw it over her shoulder and say, ‘Don’t make me work on a bad dress.’ I will only work on good clothes.’”

He studied commercial art in high school but had to drop out to help support his family. The teenager got a job as a copyboy for the AP, performed as a singing waiter and took part in amateur shows. He was an infantryman during World War II, served as a post-war librarian for the Armed Forces Network, and sang with an army big band in occupied Germany. His earliest recording is a 1946 recording of the blues “St. James Infirmary.”

Bennett used the GI bill to visit the American Theater Wing, which later became The Actors Studio. His acting classes helped him develop his phrasing and learn how to tell a story. He learned the more intimate bel canto singing technique, which helped him maintain and expand the expressive range of his voice. And he heeded the advice of his singing teacher Miriam Spier.

“She said please don’t imitate other singers because you’re just going to be one of the choirs, whether you’re impersonating Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, and you won’t develop an original sound,” Bennett recalled in the AP interview in 2006. “She said imitate musicians you like and find out how they phrase. I was particularly influenced by jazz musicians like (pianist) Art Tatum and (saxophonists) Lester Young and Stan Getz.”

In 1947, Bennett made his first recording, the Gershwins standard Fascinatin’ Rhythm, for a small label under the stage name Joe Bari. He attracted attention the following year when he landed behind Rosemary Clooney on the radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Bennett’s big break came in 1949 when singer Pearl Bailey invited him to take part in her revue at a Greenwich Village club. Bob Hope stopped by one night and was so impressed that he offered the young singer a seat at the opening of his shows at the famous Paramount Theater, where teenagers were raving about Sinatra. But the comedian didn’t like his stage name and said his real name was too long for the marquee.

“He thought for a moment, then he said, ‘We call you Tony Bennett,'” the singer wrote in his 1998 autobiography, The Good Life.

In 1950, Mitch Miller, head of Columbia Records’ pop singles division, signed Bennett and released the half-hit single “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. Bennett was on the verge of being dropped from the label in 1951 when he hit his first No. 1 on the pop charts with “Because of You.” More hits followed, including “Rags to Riches,” “Blue Velvet,” and Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” the first country song to become an international pop hit.

Bennett frequently clashed with Miller, who urged him to sing Sinatra-style ballads and original songs. But Bennett capitalized on the fledgling LP album format, beginning 1955’s “Cloud 7” with a small jazz combo led by guitarist Chuck Wayne. Bennett reached jazz audiences with such innovative albums as 1957’s The Beat of My Heart, an album of standards that brought him together with jazz percussion masters such as Chico Hamilton and Art Blakey. He was also the first white male singer to record with the Count Basie Orchestra, releasing two albums in 1958. Sinatra was later to do the same.


AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this story.

Justin Scaccy

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