New York Musical Icon Tony Bennett Dead at 96

New York’s own Tony Bennett, one of the most awarded singers of his generation, has passed away at age 96. His death marks the end of a recent battle with Alzheimer’s Disease and a life filled with chart-topping hits and almost every musical accolade possible, including 20 Grammys, a Lifetime Achievement Award and two Primetime Emmys. His signature jazzy singing style and notable duets with contemporary superstars allowed Bennett to forge a career that lasted nearly 70 years in total.

(Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Long Island City in Queens on August 3, 1926, the son of Italian immigrants. He and his older siblings grew up in poverty in New York, in the face of The Great Depression. Although his father passed away when Tony was only 10 years old, he helped him develop a love for arts and music like Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong. With the help of an uncle who worked in vaudeville. Tony Bennett was already performing live at 13 years old, singing at various Italian restaurants in Queens. He attended New York’s School of Industrial Art but dropped out at age 16 to help support his family. He never gave up on his dream of being a singer though, continuing to amass gigs as a singing waiter at restaurants as well as a a successful run at a Paramus, NJ night club.

In 1944, Bennett was drafted into the US Army during the latter stages of World War II and even spent time on the front lines at one point in Germany. Upon discharge, he studied at the American Theatre Wing on the GI Bill. Here, he was taught the bel canto singing discipline which would allow to sing him for as long as he did. It was at this time that he also first started to develop his atypical approach of imitating, as he sang, the style and phrasing of other musicians.

Pearl Bailey gave Tony his big break in 1949, asking him to open for her at a show in Greenwich Village. This led to a deal with Columbia Records where Bennett’s career first started out as a commercial pop singer. His first big hit was “Because Of You,” a ballad with a lush Percy Faith-led Orchestra. It reached #1 on the charts in 1951 and stayed there for ten weeks.

Bennett continued to score more number ones in the early part of the 50s with songs like his rendition of “Blue Velvet” and “Rags To Riches.” He even had a short-lived television variety show in 1956, The Tony Bennett Show, which served as a replacement to The Perry Como Show. As the age of rock and roll ushered in, Bennett adapted accordingly with more jazz-oriented long form recordings like Cloud 7 and the critically acclaimed The Beat Of My Heart which featured icons like Art Blakey and Candido Camero. He even became the first male pop vocalist to sing with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Bennett was also a notable advocate for civil rights. He participated at the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and performed at a rally the night before Martin Luther King’s “How Long, Not Long” speech. His career and popularity took a noticeable dip in the ’60s and ’70s where he tried, unsuccessfully, to record contemporary rock songs. He bounced around between different labels and even started his own record company called Improv which was out of business by 1977.

After a near fatal overdose and an ongoing battle with the IRS, Bennett hired his son as manager in an effort to turn his career around. He was able to get his expenses under control, moved him back to New York, and began booking him in colleges and small theaters to distance him from a “Vegas” image. By 1986, Tony Bennett was re-signed to Columbia Records, this time with creative control, and released his first album to reach the charts since 1972, The Art Of Excellence.

He continued to stay relevant throughout the ’80s and ’90s thanks to the guidance of his new management which regularly booked him on TV shows like Letterman and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. In 1993, Bennett played a string of benefit concerts organized by alternative radio stations around the country, introducing a whole new generation to composers like Cole Porter and Gershwin. He even made an appearance at the MTV Movie Video Awards alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers, cementing the gap between his and the current generation. His 1994 appearance on MTV’s influential Unplugged is heralded as one of the better episodes and may have marked the peak of Bennett’s popularity.

Bennett continued to tour extensively throughout the 90s, including a memorable appearance at Glastonbury in 1998, with his financial worries long a thing of the past. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997. Tony Bennett is also a member of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

The latter part of his career may have produced one of his more successful recordings of all time in Duets: An American Classic, which was released in 2006 as part of a celebration of Bennett’s 80th birthday, receiving two Grammy awards and resulting in a slew of corresponding concerts and TV specials. A sequel, Duets II, was released five years later featuring collaborations with artists like Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson and Lady Gaga. His recording of “Body and Soul” for the album with Amy Winehouse is reportedly the last one she made before her death.

In 2021, Tony Bennett announced his retirement from concerts and released his final album Love For Sale, another collaboration with Lady Gaga. With this, he broke the record for longest span of top-10 albums on the Billboard 200 chart for any living artist. He also broke the Guiness World Record for the oldest person to release an album of new material, at the age of 95 years and 60 days. Fittingly, his last live performances were also with Lady Gaga in 2021 that was later aired as a television special. Bennett is survived by by his wife, Susan Benedetto; his two sons, Danny and Dae Bennett; his daughters, Joanna Bennett and Antonia Bennett; and nine grandchildren.

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