Frank Sinatra may have been the Chairman of the Board, but it was Hoboken’s favorite son who once said in a 1965 Life magazine interview about his fellow saloon singer, “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more.” Bennett, who explained, “My premise has always been to highlight the music of The Great American Songbook,” passed away at the age of 96 of unknown causes, although the singer had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.
In a career that spanned six-plus decades and got its start when Pearl Bailey asked Bennett to open for her in Greenwich Village in 1949 (“Pearlie May told me once that she could start me out but ‘…it would take 10 years just to learn how to walk on a stage,’ and she was right.”), the Long Island City native sold upwards of 50 million records worldwide, founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria and racked up 20 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. He was also named an NEA Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree.
The son of a grocer and a seamstress, Bennett was the youngest of three and grew up in poverty after his father, who instilled in him compassion for his fellow humans along with a love of the arts, passed away when the singer was 10. The vocalist grew up idolizing the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Eddie Cantor and Native American vocalist Mildred Bailey (no relation to Pearl), who Bennett lionized in the 2017 documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. After serving in the Army during World War II, Bennett studied at the American Theatre Wing on the GI Bill, where he was taught the bel canto singing style, a discipline which contributed to the longevity of his singing voice.
Following the submission of a demo of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” Columbia Records president signed the aspiring crooner, initially grooming him to be a commercial pop singer. By the late ‘50s, Bennett was indulging his love of jazz and with te help of Ralph Sharon, an arranger who was Bennett’s musical director from 1957 to 1965 (and would reunite with the singer later in the latter’s career), it was a course he followed throughout the remainder of his career. During Bennett’s initial stint with Sharon, he cut a steady stream of hits including “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” “In the Middle of an Island,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which became the vocalist’s signature song.
As someone who was always willing to wear his socially conscious values on his sleeve, Bennett was an avowed pacifist whose wartime experiences, which found him having a number of brushes with death as well as helping with the liberation of the Kaufering concentration camp, informed his views. He participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, refused to perform in apartheid South Africa and was later recognized with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Humanitarian Award, was a recipient of the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement presented by Awards Council member John Lewis and was inducted into the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
While Bennett experienced career struggles from 1965 to 1979, a switch to having son Danny serve as his manager found the veteran vocalist connecting with younger generations via his fierce championing of the Great American Songbook and not catering to fads or modern trends. His old school style found Bennett connecting with a number of younger artists including the late Amy Winehouse, Elvis Costello, k.d. Lang, and most notably, Lady Gaga.
And while he continued to cultivate a devoted following through his music, Bennett’s artistic talents as a painter, honed while attending New York’s School of Industrial Art as a teen, flourished in his younger years. Encouraged to always nourish his love of the canvas by a fellow jazz legend (“…I have to credit Duke Ellington who encouraged me in later years to take my art more seriously and turn it into a second vocation—he told me it was better to be creative in more than one field and he was so right.”), Bennett cited Rembrandt, Van Gogh and David Hockney among his favorite artists.
Tony Bennett’s final live performances were alongside Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall on August 3 and 5, 2021. He retired for good from the live stage on August 12, 2021, a week after his 95th birthday. As of early 2022, he continued to rehearse with his music director three times a week according to his son and manager Danny Bennett—a true artist to the end.