A towering figure in the history of popular singers, Tony Bennett's muscular, burnished voice underscored the romance, the longing and the joy in the Great American songbook, as well as his own hits, which included "Because of You" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." A pop crooner in his early years, Bennett's devotion to jazz and standards spurred him to move away from the mainstream and dig deeply into the works of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and musical theater while collaborating with some of the great figures on the jazz scene, like the Count Basie Orchestra. His focus was not always in step with music buyers' tastes, and for years, he languished in obscurity, all the while honing his craft and his prodigious talent. With the help of his son Danny, he mounted a stunning comeback in the mid-1980s which saw him reaching younger audiences with the same music he had been performing since the 1950s. By staying out of the spotlight, he had become fresh and "alternative" all over again. Numerous Grammys and countless honors came his way, but the greatest gift Bennett received was the appreciation of his powerful and supple voice, which brought him the deserved status of living legend.
Born Aug. 3, 1926 in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, NY, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was one of three children born to grocer John Benedetto and his wife, Ann Suraci. Bennett's father was ill for most of his childhood, and would eventually pass away when he was 10, leaving his mother to eke out a meager living for her children as a seamstress. Bennett found solace in the pop and jazz performers of the day, including Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Al Jolson, and began singing in public at an early age. In 1936, his talent was sufficient enough to earn him a performance at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in 1936. He also displayed a knack for drawing, especially caricatures, and for a time, studied art and music at New York's High School of Industrial Art. The family finances forced him to drop out at 16, and by day, he worked as a copy boy for the Associated Press while honing his vocal skills as a singing waiter at Italian restaurants in Queens.
In November of 1944, the 18-year-old Bennett was drafted into the Army to serve in Europe during World War II. The experience was another challenge; basic training was marred by a sergeant who disliked Italians and gave Bennett more than his share of demeaning tasks, while his assignment - infantryman with the 255th Regiment of the 63rd Infantry Division - sent him to the front lines of the fight in Europe. Bennett and his company battled the retreating Nazi forces across France and into Germany, where he faced certain death on several occasions. He also participated in the harrowing liberation of a concentration camp at Landsberg in Bavaria. After the conclusion of the war, Bennett was assigned to a Special Services band unit that entertained troops, and performed under the name Joe Bari, a stage handle taken from the Italian city and province of Bari. After his discharge from service in 1946, he took advantage of the GI Bill to study at the American Theatre Wing, and performed wherever he could. His big break came via singer and actress Pearl Bailey, who caught Bennett's act and asked her to open for him. She also invited comedian Bob Hope to see this new talent, and Hope was impressed - enough to invite him to go on the road with him. He made one crucial suggestion to the aspiring singer - change his name to the more Anglicized Tony Bennett. The moniker stuck.
In 1950, Bennett cut a demo of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," an operatic pop song that caught the attention of Columbia Records A&R director Mitch Miller, who produced his first hit record, "Because of You." A lush, achingly romantic ballad abetted by Percy Faith's sweeping orchestral arrangement, it spent 10 weeks at the top spot on the pop charts. The song's follow-up was a curious choice - a cover of country singer Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" - but Bennett's interpretation managed to deliver a memorable pop tune that retained the heart of the original version. A string of similarly heartfelt hits, including 1953's "Rags to Riches" and "Stranger in Paradise," yielded more No. 1 and Top Ten hits for Bennett, who suddenly found himself a pop idol on par with one of his idols, Frank Sinatra. When Bennett married his first wife, Patricia Beech, in 1952, a legion of female fans turned up in funereal dress outside the ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
By the mid-1950s, the music industry was turning away from adult-oriented pop and standards to music that was popular with the youth market, like rock 'n' roll and rhythm & blues. For Bennett, the sea change had both a positive and detrimental effect on his career. Between 1955 and 1960, his singles reached the Top 10 on the pop charts just once, with 1957's "In the Middle of an Island." But the shift in attention also allowed Bennett to realign the focus of his music to a form that he truly loved - jazz. With the encouragement of his pianist and music director, Ralph Sharon, he released a pair of albums that transformed his career from pop crooner to one of the most capable and talented jazz singers of the day. The Beat of My Heart (1957) saw Bennett performing standards by such classic writers as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen with the accompaniment of jazz stalwarts like Herbie Mann, drummer Art Blakey and saxophonist Nat Adderley. And Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958) - the first album to feature the legendary Count Basie Orchestra with a male vocalist - proved that Bennett's fascination with jazz was more than a passing fancy. Both albums were commercial and critical hits, and paved the way for a new career path.
The early 1960s saw Bennett's star rise, thanks to a high-profile concert at Carnegie Hall, which featured an endurance-challenging set of 44 songs with an all-star cast of players backing him. The resulting album was another success, and led to further exposure on television shows. He had been a staple of early variety programs like "The Perry Como Show" (CBS/NBC, 1948-1966), and in fact, had briefly hosted a summer replacement series for Como called "The Tony Bennett Show" (NBC, 1956), but now, Bennett was guesting on major network hits like "American Bandstand" (ABC/USA, 1952-1999), "The Hollywood Palace" (ABC, 1964-1970) and even shows that did not require him to sing, like "What's My Line?" (ABC, 1950-1967). Bennett certainly had his share of new hits to perform on these programs. In 1962, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" became his signature song, spending a year on various charts and earning him two Grammys, while two 1963 singles, "I Wanna Be Around" and "The Good Life," achieved Top Five status. Unfortunately, Bennett's newfound success, which had taken so long to arrive, was quick to disappear.
The ascension of The Beatles had the same disruptive effect on artists like Bennett as the birth of rock 'n' roll a decade before, but this time, he was not able to bounce back from the shockwave. A string of failed singles hobbled his status considerably, as did the departure of longtime musical director Ralph Sharon. CBS Records chief Clive Davis attempted to resuscitate Bennett's career by having him record modern hits, but the results were a dismal failure and a personal low point for the singer, who became physically ill before each recording. His marriage to Patricia Beech ended in 1965, and a pass at a motion picture career in "The Oscar" (1966), an overdone look at Hollywood and the Academy Awards, was stillborn. Bennett tried to change his fortunes by jumping to MGM Records' jazz imprint, Verve, in 1972, but the shift yielded even lesser results. By the middle of the decade, Bennett was actually without a recording contract. Bennett struck out on his own label, Improv, in 1975. A pair of albums with pianist Bill Evans was released to critical acclaim, but lack of distribution sunk the company in 1977. Stints in Las Vegas provided him with steady income until the end of the decade, when a combination of unpaid back taxes and out-of-control spending hobbled his fortunes. A spiraling addiction to cocaine and marijuana nearly cost Bennett his life in 1979.
In desperation, he reached out to his sons D'Andrea (a.k.a. Danny) and Daegel, from his marriage to Patricia Beech. The pair had failed miserably in the 1970s as members of the quirky rock outfit Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends, but had found their own niches as a manager and recording engineer, respectively. Danny took control of his father's career as manager, first by removing him from the stagnant influence of Las Vegas, then by booking him in smaller, more intimate venues where his artistry could be truly appreciated. A reunion with Ralph Sharon as his bandleader and director completed the revival, and by 1986, word had spread through the industry that Bennett was not only back, but also as good, if not better, as he had been in the 1960s. A generation of music lovers who had grown up listening to performers from his heyday, like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but had never heard them in their prime, flocked to Bennett's shows. That year, he was re-signed to Columbia Records, and released the album The Art of Excellence, which launched his comeback.
The key to Bennett's revival, as orchestrated by son Danny, was to preserve his father's strengths - he would perform in a tuxedo or suit, as he had done since the beginning of his career, focus entirely on the Great American Songbook, and present the songs in his own style with no acquiescence to changing tastes or tunes. The result was both retro and forward-thinking at the same time: Bennett was singing songs that, while chestnuts to older listeners, would also be brand new to younger audiences. With critical acclaim and word of mouth boosting his father's profile with each passing day, Danny Bennett began making risky choices by booking him on shows like "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993). An appearance alongside members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the "MTV Video Music Awards" (MTV, 1984- ) and a performance of Fred Astaire's "Steppin' Out," from his Grammy-winning 1993 album of the same name, further broke down barriers of demographics and taste. By 1994, when Bennett performed on "MTV Unplugged" (MTV, 1989-2006) and released the double Grammy-winning, platinum-selling album of the same name, he was widely regarded as the leading voice of American vocal jazz.
In the years that followed, Bennett reaped the benefits of his talents and endurance. His troubles with the IRS were paid off, and by the new millennium, he was worth some $20 million. He toured and released albums with the vigor of a man half his age - total lifetime sales broke the 50 million mark, with eight more Grammys for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance or Album between 1996 and 2006, as well as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. His television output also netted acclaim and honors: his appearance in the debut episode of "Live By Request" (A&E, 1996- ), a series based on his own concept, earned an Emmy, while tributes from the Kennedy Center Honors, The National Endowment for the Arts, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers all soon found a place on his very crowded mantle. He returned the favor by establishing Exploring the Arts, a charitable organization that supported arts education, and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in his hometown of Queens. Both were created in conjunction with his third wife, educator Susan Crow.
In 2006, Bennett's 80th birthday was feted by the entertainment industry - and the world at large - with a series of events that included a primetime television special, "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" (NBC, 2006), which netted two Emmys, and "Duets: An American Classic," which featured new duets with performers like Christina Aguilera and the Dixie Chicks on Bennett's biggest hits, which won two Grammys. A lifelong supporter of civil and human rights who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, he was presented with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Humanitarian Award. Breaking his eighth decade did little to slow Bennett down. In 2008, he released a Christmas album with the Count Basie Big Band, while in 2009, he made his debut at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest. The following year, he participated in "We Are the World: 25 for Haiti," which benefited charities offering relief to that country after its devastating earthquake that same year.
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Began touring with Bob Hope after being introduced by Pearl Bailey
Signed with Columbia Records and started working with record producer Mitch Miller
Charted at No. 1 with the song "Because of You"
Recorded "Stranger in Paradise" for the Broadway musical "Kismet"
Released first long-playing album, <i>Cloud 7</i>
Hosted the NBC Saturday night television variety program called "The Tony Bennett Show" as a summer replacement for "The Perry Como Show"
Staged a highly-promoted concert performance at Carnegie Hall with musicians Al Cohn, Kenny Burrell, and Candido
Performed on the debut episode of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC)
Released his most famous song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," which earned him his first Grammy Award
Made his film debut in the poorly received "The Oscar"
Ended his 20 year relationship with Columbia Records and formed his own label, Improv
Closed his record company, Improv
Re-signed with Columbia Records and returned to recording music with the album <i>The Art of Excellence</i>
Released the studio album <i>Astoria: Portrait of the Artist</i>
Played a series of benefit concerts organized by alternative rock radio stations around the country
Made an appearance on "MTV Unplugged"
Starred in the first of A&E Network's popular "Live By Request" series
Published <i>The Good Life: The Autobiography of Tony Bennett</i>
Had cameo appearance as himself in "Analyze This"
Headlined the PBS special concert "Tony Bennett's Wonderful World: Live From San Francisco"
Made a cameo as himself in the comedy feature "Bruce Almighty"
Headlined the Rob Marshall-directed television special "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" on NBC
Released the album <i>Duets: An American Classic</i>, featuring collaborations with Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, and Celine Dion
Performed with Billy Joel at the final concerts given at Shea Stadium
Released the album <i>A Swingin' Christmas</i> with The Count Basie Big Band
Joined various artists for "We Are the World: 25 for Haiti," a charity single in aid of the 2010 Haiti earthquake
Released <i>Duets II</i>, a follow-up album to "<i>Duets: An American Classic</i> that featured collaborations with Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, and Aretha Franklin