Tony Bennett, born Anthony Dominick Benedetto; August 3, 1926 is an American singer of popular music, standards, show tunes, and jazz.
Raised in New York City, Bennett began singing at an early age. He fought in the final stages of World War II as an infantryman with the U.S. Army in the European Theatre. Afterwards, he developed his singing technique, signed with Columbia Records, and had his first number one popular song with "Because of You" in 1951. Several top hits such as "Rags to Riches" followed in the early 1950s. Bennett then further refined his approach to encompass jazz singing. He reached an artistic peak in the late 1950s with albums such as The Beat of My Heart and Basie Swings, Bennett Sings. In 1962, Bennett recorded his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". His career and his personal life then suffered an extended downturn during the height of the rock music era.
Anthony Benedetto was born in Astoria, Queens, New York City, the son of Ann (née Suraci) and John Benedetto. His father was a grocer who had emigrated from Podàrgoni, a rural eastern district of the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria, and his mother was a seamstress. With two other children, and a father who was ailing and unable to work, the siblings with older brother John Jr., and younger sister Mary grew up in poverty. John Benedetto Sr. died when Anthony was 10 years old.
Young "Tony" Benedetto grew up listening to Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby as well as jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Joe Venuti. An uncle was a tap dancer in vaudeville, giving him an early window into show business.
Warned by Miller not to imitate Frank Sinatra (who was just then leaving Columbia), Bennett began his career as a crooner singing commercial pop tunes. His first big hit was "Because of You", a ballad produced by Miller with a lush orchestral arrangement from Percy Faith. It started out gaining popularity on jukeboxes, then reached #1 on the pop charts in 1951 and stayed there for 10 weeks, selling over a million copies. This was followed to the top of the charts later that year by a similarly-styled rendition of Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart", which helped introduce Williams and country music in general to a wider, more national audience. The Miller and Faith tandem continued to work on all of Bennett's early hits. Bennett's recording of "Blue Velvet" was also very popular and attracted screaming teenaged fans at concerts at the famed Paramount Theater in New York (Bennett did seven shows a day, starting at 10:30 a.m.) and elsewhere.
A growing artistry
In 1954, the guitarist Chuck Wayne became Bennett's musical director. Bennett released his first long-playing album in 1955, Cloud 7. The album was billed as featuring Wayne and showed Benett's leanings towards jazz. In 1957, Ralph Sharon became Bennett's pianist and musical director, replacing Wayne. Sharon told Bennett that a career singing "sweet saccharine songs like 'Blue Velvet'" wouldn't last long, and encouraged Bennett to focus even more on his jazz inclinations.
The result was the 1957 album The Beat of My Heart. It used well-known jazz musicians such as Herbie Mann and Nat Adderley, with a strong emphasis on percussion from the likes of Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Latin star Candido Camero, and Chico Hamilton. The album was both popular and critically praised. Bennett followed this by working with the Count Basie Orchestra, becoming the first male pop vocalist to sing with Basie's band.The albums Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958) and In Person! (1959) were the well-regarded fruits of this collaboration, with "Chicago" being one of the standout songs.
The next year brought The Beatles and the British Invasion, and with them still more musical and cultural attention to rock and less to pop, standards, and jazz. Over the next couple of years Bennett had minor hits with several albums and singles based on show tunes – his last top-40 single was the #34 "If I Ruled the World" from Pickwick in 1965 – but his commercial fortunes were clearly starting to decline. An attempt to break into acting with a role in the poorly received 1966 film The Oscar met with middling reviews for Bennett; he did not enjoy the experience and did not seek further roles.
Years of struggle
Ralph Sharon and Bennett parted ways in 1965. There was great pressure on singers such as Lena Horne and Barbra Streisand to record "contemporary" rock songs, and in this vein Columbia Records' Clive Davis suggested that Bennett do the same. Bennett was very reluctant, and when he tried, the results pleased no one. This was exemplified by Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! (1970). before which Bennett became physically ill at the thought of recording. It featured misguided attempts at Beatles and other current songs and a ludicrous psychedelic art cover.
Years later Bennett would recall his dismay at being asked to do contemporary material, comparing it to when his mother was forced to produce a cheap dress. By 1972, he had departed Columbia for MGM Records, but found no more success there, and in a couple more years he was without a recording contract.
Bennett and his wife Patricia had been separated since 1965, their marriage a victim of Bennett's spending too much time on the road, among other factors. In 1971, their divorce became official. Bennett had been involved with aspiring actress Sandra Grant since filming The Oscar, and on December 29, 1971 they married. They had two daughters, Joanna (born around 1969) and Antonia (born 1974), and moved to Los Angeles.
After a near-fatal cocaine overdose in 1979, Bennett called his sons Danny and Dae for help. "Look, I'm lost here," he told them. "It seems like people don't want to hear the music I make."
Danny Bennett, an aspiring musician himself, also came to a realization. The band Danny and his brother had started, Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends, had foundered and Danny's musical abilities were limited. However, he had discovered during this time that he did have a head for business. His father, on the other hand, had tremendous musical talent but was having trouble sustaining a career from it and had little financial sense. Danny signed on as his father's manager.
An unexpected audience
By the mid-1980s, the excesses of the disco, punk rock, and new wave eras had given many artists and listeners a greater appreciation for the classic American song. Rock stars such as Linda Ronstadt began recording albums of standards, and such songs began showing up more frequently in movie soundtracks and on television commercials.
Danny Bennett felt strongly that younger audiences, although completely unfamiliar with Tony Bennett, would respond to his music if only given a chance to see and hear it. More crucially, no changes to Tony's appearance (tuxedo), singing style (his own), musical accompaniment (The Ralph Sharon Trio or an orchestra), or song choice (generally the Great American Songbook) were necessary or desirable.
Tony Bennett's career as a painter, done under his real name of Benedetto, has also flourished. He followed up his childhood interest with serious training, work, and museum visits throughout his life. He sketches or paints every day, even of views out of hotel windows when he is on tour.
He has exhibited his work in numerous galleries around the world. He was chosen as the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby, and was commissioned by the United Nations to do two paintings, including one for their 50th anniversary. His painting "Homage to Hockney" (for his friend David Hockney, painted after Hockney drew him) is on permanent display at the highly regarded Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. His "Boy on Sailboat, Sydney Bay" is in the permanent collection at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park in New York, as is his "Central Park" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Since his comeback, Bennett has financially prospered; by 1999, his assets were worth $15 to 20 million. He had no intention of retiring, saying "If you study the masters – Picasso, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire – right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older. Indeed, Bennett has continued to record and tour steadily, doing 100 to 200 shows a year. In concert Bennett often makes a point of singing one song (usually "Fly Me to the Moon") without any microphone or amplification, demonstrating to younger audience members the lost art of vocal projection.
A series of albums, often based on themes (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, blues, duets) has met with good acceptance; Bennett has won seven more Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance or Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammys in the subsequent years, most recently for the year 2006. Bennett has sold over 50 million records worldwide during his career.
In August 2006, Bennett turned eighty years old. The birthday itself was an occasion for publicity, which then extended through the rest of the following year.
Awards and recognition
Bennett has won fifteen Grammy Awards, as follows (years shown are the year in which the ceremony was held and the award was given, not the year in which the recording was released):
Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, 2000, Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool
Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001
Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, 2003, Playing with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues
Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, 2004, A Wonderful World (with k.d. lang)
Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, 2006, The Art of Romance
Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, 2007, Duets: An American Classic
Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, 2007, "For Once in My Life" (with Stevie Wonder)
Bennett has won two Emmy Awards, as follows (years shown are the year in which the ceremony was held and the award was given, not the year in which the program aired):
Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, 1996, Live by Request
Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, 2007, Tony Bennett: An American Classic
Bennett has gained other notable recognition:
New York City's Bronze Medallion, 1969
Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, 1997
Lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, 2002
Kennedy Center Honoree, 2005
Inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Humanitarian Award, 2006
National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, 2006