Tony Bennett, singing star for the ages, dies at 96

The timeless singer had his first hit in 1951 and topped the charts again more than 60 years later

Tony Bennett performs in 2015. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Few entertainers in any field have had such a remarkable and enduring second act as singer Tony Bennett. He had his first top-selling hit in 1951 with “Because of You,” then topped the charts again more than 60 years later, collaborating with pop star Lady Gaga to become the oldest person ever to have a No. 1 album.

He was a singer of the pre-rock school, a tuxedo-clad throwback whose career faltered in the 1960s and ’70s, when he refused to sing music he thought was beneath his talents. Then, with his son managing a late-career revival, Mr. Bennett began to connect with younger audiences of the MTV generation, soaring into a second-time-around stardom in the 1990s without changing his classic style or even loosening his tie.

His albums were on the charts in every decade from the 1950s to the 2020s. He was a star before Elvis Presley recorded his first song and was still at the top of his game in the era of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Jay-Z, giving him what critic Gary Giddins called “the longest last laugh in history.”

Mr. Bennett, who won 20 Grammy Awards and performed for every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama, died July 21 in New York at 96, the Associated Press reported, citing his publicist, Sylvia Weiner. No specific cause was noted. He and his family revealed in 2021 that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

“Tony Bennett possesses one of the great voices and singing careers of the last 60 years,” John Edward Hasse, a music historian who was a longtime curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, said before Mr. Bennett’s death. “Not very many singers, much less musicians, have achieved that kind of durability. He’s got a jazz musician’s phrasing and sense of timing, as well as a feeling for spontaneity. These are classic, timeless aesthetic values that he personifies.”

Beginning as a bobby-sox idol in the mold of Frank Sinatra, Mr. Bennett became a star in the early 1950s with such hit songs as “Because of You,” “Rags to Riches,” “Stranger in Paradise” and a pop version of country singer Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart.”

When he recorded for the Columbia label, he worked most often with producer Mitch Miller, who propelled many singers to fame but often saddled them with novelty songs of dubious merit. Mr. Bennett bargained with Miller for a measure of artistic freedom.

As a result, his musical catalogue was balanced between saccharine pop tunes and more challenging material, which he often performed with leading jazz musicians. He perfected a style that changed little throughout the years. He sang ballads with a warm intimacy, bounced through fast-tempo tunes with swinging gusto and often finished songs with a full-throated, operatic ending.

In 1961, just as rock-and-roll was about to eclipse the traditional pop favored by Mr. Bennett, his pianist, Ralph Sharon, suggested that he try out a new tune for a tour to the West Coast.

Ralph Sharon, longtime accompanist to singer Tony Bennett, dies at 91

Mr. Bennett recorded “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” by the little-known songwriting team of Douglass Cross and George Cory, in a single take in 1962, and it was released as the B-side of the single “Once Upon a Time.” Even though it did not reach No. 1, “San Francisco” became one of the best-selling records of 1962 and stayed on the charts for almost three years. It earned Mr. Bennett his first Grammy Awards, for record of the year and best male solo vocal performance.

He sang “San Francisco” on the premiere episode of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” on Oct. 1, 1962, and for the rest of his career it remained his signature song. Whenever a San Francisco sports team appeared in a championship game, Mr. Bennett often appeared in person to sing his ballad to the city “where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.”

Asked if he ever got tired of the song, Mr. Bennett replied: “Do you ever get tired of making love?”

For a few years, the success of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” put Mr. Bennett in constant demand. He moved out of nightclubs and into more famous concert settings, including Carnegie Hall, and was often in the recording studio.

“For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business,” Sinatra told Life magazine in 1965, at the height of Mr. Bennett’s initial fame. “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.”

From 1962 to 1966, Mr. Bennett released 15 albums. He was featured on television shows and had a command performance before the British royal family.

But as rock-and-roll swept over popular culture in the late 1960s, Mr. Bennett came to be seen as a has-been. He recorded a pair of landmark albums in the mid-1970s with jazz pianist Bill Evans that were praised for their deep expressiveness and sensitivity, but they were not major hits.

At the same time, Mr. Bennett’s turbulent second marriage was falling apart, he was deeply in debt and, he later admitted, had developed a dependency on drugs. The older of his two sons, Danny, a onetime rock guitarist, examined Mr. Bennett’s shaky finances, which included unpaid taxes and failed business ventures, and asked his father what he wanted to accomplish with his career.

Mr. Bennett said he would do anything except compromise his musical integrity. He recalled the final phone conversation he had with Evans, the jazz pianist.

“Just think truth and beauty,” Evans told him. “Forget about everything else. Just concentrate on truth and beauty, that’s all.”

Partly in response to Evans’s death in 1980 as a result of drug abuse, Mr. Bennett swore off cocaine and other drugs and rededicated himself to singing. He hired Danny Bennett, his son, as his manager.

He rejoined Columbia Records in 1986 and continued performing his standard repertoire of music by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and the Gershwin brothers. Instead of singing to the same aging corps of fans, Mr. Bennett appeared on late-night talk shows, MTV and at alternative-rock festivals and other venues where younger audiences could hear him. He capitalized on a revival of traditional pop styles that began in the 1980s, when Linda Ronstadt recorded albums with Sinatra’s onetime arranger, Nelson Riddle.

Mr. Bennett was heard on episodes of “The Simpsons.” His 1954 hit “Rags to Riches” was played during the opening credits of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mobster film “Goodfellas.” He had cameo appearances in movies including “Get Shorty,” “Casino,” “Swingers” and “Analyze This.”

Returning to the studio in the 1990s, Mr. Bennett made more than a dozen new albums — including “Here’s to the Ladies” (1995), “Bennett Sings Ellington, Hot & Cool” (1999) and “The Art of Romance” (2004) — that were among the finest of his career. He rerecorded songs he had performed since his youth, as his aging, grainy tenor voice burnished the lyrics with a lifetime of experience.

He became something of an avuncular emissary to a generation that had never heard of Cole Porter but who admired Mr. Bennett’s cool nonchalance and his refusal to follow other people’s trends.

“He has become the best singer of his kind,” critic Francis Davis wrote in the Atlantic in 1990. “In addition to making a virtue of the slight huskiness that has crept into his voice with age, it gives his performances an autobiographical depth comparable to that which Sinatra achieved in his late prime.”

Mr. Bennett won Grammy Awards for his 1992 tribute to Sinatra, “Perfectly Frank,” and for “Steppin’ Out,” a 1993 salute to Fred Astaire. His 1994 “MTV Unplugged” special on the music-video network was a national event, and the accompanying album won two Grammys, including album of the year. Even after he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2001, Mr. Bennett continued to receive Grammys for performance, including the award for the best traditional pop vocal album with Lady Gaga as late as 2022, with “Love for Sale,” which was recorded the previous year and reached No. 2 on the Billboard album chart.

Well into his 80s, Mr. Bennett gave as many as 200 concerts a year. He was a presenter at MTV’s Video Music Awards show, received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2005 and was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.

In 2011, Mr. Bennett’s “Duets II” album, featuring Amy Winehouse, Faith Hill and other young singers, reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart, ahead of hip-hop performers, country singers and rock-and-rollers. Three years later, he was back on top with “Cheek to Cheek,” an album of classic tunes with Lady Gaga, making Mr. Bennett, then 88, the oldest performer ever to have a No. 1 record.

Shaped by an Army experience

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born Aug. 3, 1926, in Queens. His Italian-born father was a grocer who died when his son was 10. His mother worked as a seamstress while raising three children.

Mr. Bennett sang at family gatherings and listened closely to Sinatra and Bing Crosby in his teens before serving in the Army infantry during World War II. He was 18 when he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate a concentration camp at Landsberg, Germany.

Notable deaths of 2023, so far

He occasionally sang with musical combos, but he had another experience in the Army that shaped his life. In Germany, Mr. Bennett ran into a Black friend from New York and joined him for Thanksgiving dinner. Mr. Bennett’s commanding officer reprimanded him for associating with African Americans and transferred him to a different unit.

For the rest of his life, Mr. Bennett was a quiet political activist and advocate for civil rights. He campaigned for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and joined Martin Luther King Jr. on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

In New York after the war, Mr. Bennett held a series of odd jobs — elevator operator, grocery delivery boy, singing waiter — while using the GI Bill to study voice at the American Theatre Wing, the organization that sponsors the Tony Awards. Throughout his career, he used the bel canto vocal exercises he learned then to warm up before a performance.

He was working under the name Joe Bari in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope invited him to be his opening act at New York’s Paramount Theater. Just before the young singer went onstage, Hope asked him what his real name was.

“He thought a moment,” Mr. Bennett told the New Yorker in 1974, “and said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett,’ and went out on the stage and introduced me.”

Hope also gave him another piece of advice: Always walk onstage with a smile.

In 1950, Mr. Bennett’s recording of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” enjoyed strong sales, but he aimed to be more than just a pop singer. He joined jazz musicians in all-night jam sessions, became close friends with Duke Ellington and Count Basie and sang with both of their orchestras.

After living in Los Angeles and London, Mr. Bennett settled in Manhattan, where he often painted in his home studio overlooking Central Park, signing his works “Benedetto.” He was instrumental in launching a high school for the performing arts in his native borough of Queens.

His marriages to Patricia Beech and Sandra Grant ended in divorce. Survivors include his third wife, Susan Crow, whom he married in 2007 after a long relationship; two sons from his first marriage, Danny Bennett and Daegal Bennett; and two daughters from his second marriage, Joanna Bennett and Antonia Bennett.

Mr. Bennett continued to perform for five years after he received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2016, his wife revealed to the AARP website in 2021. Despite his condition, he never forgot a lyric while singing. In August 2021, he gave two farewell concerts at New York’s Radio City Music Hall with Lady Gaga to commemorate his 95th birthday.

For more than seven decades, Mr. Bennett was known for his ageless, agile voice, for the intimacy of his interpretations and for an impeccable sense of style and musical taste that had a lasting appeal.

“Do you know how many producers I’ve been through, and I’m still here?” Mr. Bennett told “60 Minutes” in 1995. “They’d always say, ‘You’ve got to do this silly little song … ’

“I’d say, ‘Just let me follow my heart.’”

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