In 1951, Tony Bennett had his first big record, “Because of You,” and in 1962, he published his hallmark tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Bennett’s reputation fell as younger fans gravitated toward rock music, but by the 1990s, he had recovered thanks to increased exposure and an outstanding MTV Unplugged appearance. He then collaborated with singers such as Lady Gaga on the hugely successful Duets and Duets II albums, adding to his Grammy collection even as he reached his 90th year.
Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Astoria, Queens, New York, on August 3, 1926. Coming of age during the Great Depression, he faced additional challenges when his father died at the age of ten.
Bennett attended New York City’s High School of Industrial Arts, but dropped school to support his family’s finances and worked as a singing waiter. After serving in the Army infantry during WWII, he used the G.I. Bill to study singing at the American Theatre Wing. During this time, his vocal instructor Mimi Spear gave him some sound advice: instead of imitating other singers, mimic instrumentalists.
Early Hits: ‘Because of You,’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart’
Bennett was discovered in 1949 while performing under the name Joe Bari by Pearl Bailey, who asked him to open for her concert in Greenwich Village. He later drew the notice of Bob Hope, who recommended him to adopt the stage name Tony Bennett and join his road show. In 1997, Bennett told Billboard, “I’ve been on the road ever since.”
In 1950, Bennett signed with Columbia Records and began working with record producer Mitch Miller. His early hits included “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Rags to Riches,” and his sweet voice won him young admirers’ admiration.
By the late 1950s, Bennett had developed an interest in producing jazz recordings, and he collaborated with some of the industry’s best musicians. His 1958 album, Basie Swings, Bennett Sings, included the songs “Jeepers Creepers” and “Chicago.” While his songs had become more meaningful by this stage, they had yet to match the success of his previous singles.
‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’
Bennett made a comeback in 1962 with the release of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” released as the B-side to “Once Upon a Time,” was the single that attracted the public’s attention; it led to Bennett’s first Grammy Awards, for Best Record of the Year and Best Solo Vocal Performance, and became his hallmark song. Its triumph also set the way for more quick success, with subsequent singles “I Wanna Be Around” and “The Good Life” reaching the Top 20.
Professional and Personal Struggles
Bennett’s breakthrough resulted in some artistic disagreements between the singer and his record label. His desire to sing great material led him to want to attempt new songs and types of music, but Columbia initially wanted him to stick to the style of his early hits. When the firm tried to pull Bennett toward the contemporary rock sound popularized by the Beatles and other musicians in the late 1960s, the relationship grew even more difficult.
Bennett left Columbia in the early 1970s and started his own label, Improv, shortly afterwards. Despite recording what has come to be regarded as some of his best work, such as The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976), his songs failed to chart. Improv had gone out of business by the end of the decade, and Bennett had stopped recording.
Bennett’s time away from the studio coincided with a period of personal turmoil for the singer. After moving to Los Angeles, he began taking cocaine and marijuana, narcotics that were common in the celebrity party scene. Bennett changed his ways after having a near-death experience in the bathtub and remembering Lenny Bruce’s drug-related death.
Career Revival: ‘The Simpsons,’ MTV Unplugged
Bennett was able to put his personal and professional lives back together with the assistance of his oldest son, Danny, who became his personal manager. The singer re-signed with Columbia Records and released The Art of Excellence, his first studio album in nearly a decade, in 1986.
Danny Bennett ensured that his father gained ample exposure, appearing on talk shows with David Letterman and Jay Leno, making an animated appearance on The Simpsons, and delivering an acclaimed performance on MTV Unplugged, which resulted in a pair of Grammy Award wins.
During this time, Bennett released a string of critically lauded tribute albums, including Perfectly Frank (1992), Steppin’ Out (1993), and Tony Bennett on Holiday (1997). Tony Bennett: The Playground (1998) was an album of children’s songs, while Christmas with Tony Bennett and the London Symphony Orchestra was a collection of seasonal favorites released in 2002.
‘Duets’ and Other Later Works
Bennett recorded A Wonderful World with k.d. Lang in 2002. Bennett won another Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal record with the record, and it set a new benchmark for collaboration at this late juncture in his career.
In 2006, to mark his 80th birthday, the singer produced Duets: An American Classic, which included a lineup of performers including Barbra Streisand, Elton John, and Sting. The project was such a success that he followed it up with another celebratory album, Duets II, in 2011. Among the highlights were “The Lady Is a Tramp,” performed with Lady Gaga, and “Body and Soul,” the late Amy Winehouse’s final recording. Bennett received a Grammy in March for his collaboration with Winehouse, as well as for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
‘Duets II’ to ‘Viva Duets’
In addition, in 2012, his admirers were afforded to an intimate look at the making of Duets II and the iconic singer’s life in the documentary The Zen of Bennett. Bennett’s son Danny was the project’s creator and producer, and it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of that year.
Bennett’s next album, Viva Duets, was released later that year. The Latin-themed album includes songs in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, with appearances by such well-known artists as Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan. Bennett, who is now in his 80s, has scheduled a series of concerts to promote his latest record.
‘Cheek to Cheek’
Bennett reunited with Lady Gaga in September 2014 for the album Cheek to Cheek, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. In an interview with Parade magazine, Bennett discussed the collaboration and what he learnt from working with the pop artist, saying, “Nobody has communicated with the public more than Lady Gaga. Ever.” I believe the crowd and am really impressed. They consider her to be a member of their family. Bing Crosby was the only person who ever accomplished it years ago.”
With his next CD, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (2015), the ageless crooner returned to solo vocals. Despite being a smaller effort in compared to his prior high-profile duos, the album achieved a similar outcome by winning the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album in 2016. Tony Bennett Celebrates 90 won a Grammy in the same category in 2018.
Books & Philanthropy
Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen (1996) is a collection of portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes portrayed in several mediums. Following that, he published The Good Life: Tony Bennett’s Autobiography (1998), Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art & Music (2007), and Life Is a Gift: Bennett’s Zen (2012).
Bennett has been honored by the Kennedy Center and the United Nations, in addition to his 18 Grammy Awards. He has also been active in humanitarian causes, and in 1999 he co-founded the nonprofit Exploring the Arts with Susan Crow, who would later become his third wife.
Bennett has had a lifetime interest in visual art, in addition to music. His works, which he signs using his given name, Anthony Benedetto, have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To manage this portion of his artistic career, he established Benedetto Arts LLC in 1999.
Bennett’s current and third wife is Susan Crow, whom he married in 2007. His previous wives were Sandra Grant and Patricia Beech.
In February 2021, Bennett revealed that he has Alzheimer’s disease.