The following biography
Tony Bennett (born
Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926) is an American popular music,
standards, and jazz singer who is widely considered to be one of the best
interpretative singers in these genres.
After having achieved
artistic and commercial success in the 1950s and early 1960s, his career
suffered an extended downturn during the height of the rock music era. However,
Bennett staged a remarkable comeback in the late 1980s and 1990s, expanding his
audience to a younger generation while keeping his musical style intact. He
remains a popular and critically praised recording artist and concert performer
in the 2000s.
Tony Bennett is also a
serious and accomplished painter.
Birth name Anthony
Born August 3, 1926 (age
80), Astoria, Queens, New York City, United States
Genre(s) Traditional Pop
Years active 1949-present
Website Official Tony
Bennett music website
Anthony Benedetto was
born in Astoria, Queens in New York City. His father was a grocer and his mother
He grew up listening to
Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and 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.
By age 10 the young
Benedetto was already singing, performing at the opening of the Triborough
Bridge. He attended New York's High School of Industrial Art where he studied
music and painting (an interest he would always return to as an adult), but
dropped out at age 16 to help support his family. He then set his sights on a
professional singing career, performing as a singing waiter in several Queens
War II and after
This was interrupted when
Benedetto was drafted into the United States Army in 1944 during World War II.
He served as a replacement infantryman in the U.S. 63rd Infantry Division in
France and Germany, moving across France during the winter, then fighting on the
front lines in March and April 1945 as the Germans were pushed back across the
Rhine. Benedetto narrowly escaped death several times. He would later write,
"Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn't gone through one." At
the war's conclusion he was involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration
camp near Landsberg.
Benedetto stayed in
Germany as part of the occupying force, but was assigned to an informal Special
Services band unit that would entertain nearby American forces. Later, some
remarks he made against the Army's racial segregation policies led to his being
demoted and reassigned to Graves Registration duties, leading to a further
dislike of the military.  Subsequently, he sang with the Army military band
under the stage name Joe Bari, and played with many musicians who would have
Upon his discharge from
the Army and return to the States in 1946, he studied at the American Theater
Wing on the GI Bill. He was taught the bel canto singing discipline, which would
keep his voice in good shape for his entire career. He continued to perform
wherever he could, including while waiting tables. He developed an unusual style
of phrasing that involved imitating other musicians—such as Stan Getz's
saxophone or Art Tatum's piano—as he sang, thus allowing him to improvise as he
interpreted a song.
In 1949 Pearl Bailey
spotted his talent and asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village. She had
invited Bob Hope to the show. Hope decided to bring Bari on the road with him,
but suggested he use his real name simplified to Tony Bennett. In 1950 Bennett
cut a demo and was signed to Columbia Records by Mitch Miller.
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 later that year by a similarly-styled
rendition of Hank Williams' "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 teenage
fans at concerts in the famed Paramount Theatre in New York (Bennett did 7 shows
a day, starting at 10:30 a.m.) and elsewhere.
In 1952 Bennett married
Ohio art student and jazz fan Patricia Beech, whom he had met the previous year
after a nightclub performance in Cleveland. Two thousand female fans dressed in
black gathered outside the ceremony at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral in
mock mourning. Bennett and Beech would have two sons, D'Andrea (Danny) and
A third #1 came in 1953
with "Rags to Riches". Unlike Bennett's other early hits, this was an up-tempo
big band number with a bold, brassy sound and a double tango in the instrumental
break; it topped the charts for eight weeks. Later that year Bennett began
singing show tunes to make up for a New York newspaper strike; "Stranger in
Paradise" from the Broadway show Kismet reached the top, as well as being a #1
hit in the United Kingdom and starting Bennett's career as an international
Once the rock and roll
era began in 1955, the dynamic of the music industry changed and it became
harder for existing pop singers to do as well commercially. Nevertheless Bennett
continued to enjoy success, placing 8 songs in the Billboard Top 40 during the
latter part of the 1950s, with "In the Middle of an Island" reaching the highest
at #9 in 1957.
In 1956 Bennett hosted
the television variety show The Tony Bennett Show as a summer replacement for
The Perry Como Show.
In 1955 Bennett released
his first long-playing album, Cloud 7, which showed Bennett's jazz leanings. In
1957 Ralph Sharon became Bennett's pianist and musical director. 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
The result was the 1957
album 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, 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! Tony Bennett/Count Basie and his Orchestra (1959) were the well-regarded
fruits of this collaboration, with "Chicago" being one of the standout songs.
Bennett also built up the
quality and reputation of his nightclub act; in this he was following the path
of Sinatra and other top jazz and standards singers of this era. Bennett also
appeared on television; he sang on the first night of both the Johnny Carson The
Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show. In June 1962 Bennett staged a
highly-promoted concert performance at Carnegie Hall, using a stellar lineup of
musicians including Al Cohn, Kenny Burrell, and Candido, as well as the Ralph
Sharon Trio. The concert featured 44 songs, including favorites like "I've Got
the World on a String" and "The Best Is Yet To Come". It was a big success, and
further cemented Bennett's reputation as a star both at home and abroad.
Also in 1962 Bennett
released the song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". Although this only reached
#19 on the Billboard Hot 100, it spent close to a year on various other charts
and increased Bennett's exposure. The album of the same title was a top 5 hit
and both the single and album achieved gold record status. The song won Grammy
Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, and over the
years would become known as Bennett's signature song. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd
on an RIAA/NEA list of the most historically significant Songs of the 20th
album, I Wanna Be Around (1963) was also a top 5 success, with the title track
and "The Good Life" each reaching the top 20 of the pop singles chart and the
top 10 of the Adult Contemporary chart.
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 1966 film The Oscar was not well
A firm believer in the
American Civil Rights movement, Bennett participated in the 1965 Selma to
Montgomery marches.  Years later he would continue this commitment by
refusing to perform in apartheid South Africa.
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! (1969), which featured misguided attempts
at Beatles and other current songs and a ludicrous psychedelic 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 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 in 1972 they married. They would have two daughters, Joanna and Antonia
Hoping to take matters
into his own hand, Bennett started his own record company, Improv. He cut some
songs that would later become favorites, such as "What is This Thing Called
Love?", and made two well-regarded albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans, The Tony
Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976), but by 1977 Improv
was out of business. A stint of living in England, like other American jazz
expatriates, did not change his fortunes.
As the decade neared its
end, Bennett had no recording contract, no manager, and was not performing any
concerts outside of Las Vegas. His second marriage was failing (they would
divorce in 1980). He had (like many musicians) developed a drug addiction, was
living beyond his means, and had the Internal Revenue Service trying to seize
his Los Angeles home. He had hit bottom.
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
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.
Danny signed on as his father's manager.
Danny got his father's
expenses under control, moved him back to New York, and began booking him in
colleges and small theatres to get him away from a "Vegas" image. Tony Bennett
had also reunited with Ralph Sharon as his pianist and musical director. By
1986, Tony Bennett was re-signed to Columbia Records, this time with creative
control, and released The Art of Excellence. This became his first album to
reach the charts since 1972.
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.
Accordingly, Danny began
to book his father on shows with younger audiences, such as David Letterman's
talk shows, The Simpsons, and various MTV programs. The plan worked; as Tony
later remembered, "I realized that young people had never heard those songs.
Cole Porter, Gershwin – they were like, 'Who wrote that?' To them, it was
different. If you're different, you stand out."
During this time, Bennett
continued to record, first putting out the acclaimed look back Astoria: Portrait
of the Artist (1990), then emphasizing themed albums such as the Sinatra homage
Perfectly Frank (1992) and the Fred Astaire tribute Steppin' Out (1993). The
latter two both achieved gold status and won Grammys for Best Traditional Pop
Vocal Performance (Bennett's first Grammys since 1962) and further established
Bennett as the inheritor of the mantle of a classic American great.
As Bennett was seen at
MTV Video Music Awards shows side by side with the likes of the Red Hot Chili
Peppers and Flavor Flav, and as his "Steppin' Out With My Baby" video received
MTV airplay, it was clear that, as The New York Times said, "Tony Bennett has
not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly
connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no
The new audience reached
its height with Bennett's appearance in 1994 on MTV Unplugged. Featuring guest
appearances by rock and country stars Elvis Costello and k.d. lang (both of whom
had a profound respect for the standards genre), the show attracted a
considerable audience and much media attention. The resulting MTV Unplugged:
Tony Bennett album went platinum and, besides taking the Best Traditional Pop
Vocal Performance Grammy award for the third straight year, also won the top
Grammy prize of Album of the Year. At age 68, Tony Bennett had come all the way
Since then Bennett has
continued to record and tour steadily. 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. One show, Tony Bennett's Wonderful World: Live From San Francisco,
was made into a PBS special. Bennett also created the idea behind, and starred
in the first, of the A&E Network's Live By Request series, for which he won an
A series of albums, often
based on themes (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, blues, duets)
have met with good acceptance; Bennett has won six more Best Traditional Pop
Vocal Performance or Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammys in the subsequent
years, most recently for the year 2005. According to his official biography,
Bennett has now sold over 50 million records worldwide during his career.
In addition to numerous
television guest performances, Bennett has had cameo appearances as himself in
films such as The Scout, Analyze This, and Bruce Almighty.
Tony Bennett's career as
a painter 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.
Painting under his real name of Benedetto, he has exhibited his work in numerous
galleries and has been commissioned by the Kentucky Derby and the United
Nations. His painting "Homage to Hockney" (for his friend David Hockney) is on
permanent display at the highly regarded Butler Institute of American Art in
Youngstown, Ohio as is his "Boy on Sailboat, Sydney Bay" at the National Arts
Club in Gramercy Park in New York. His paintings have been featured in ARTnews
and other magazines. Many of his works were published in the art book Tony
Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen in 1996.
Bennett also published
The Good Life: The Autobiography of Tony Bennett in 1998.
For his contribution to
the recording industry, Tony Bennett has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at
1560 Vine Street.
Bennett was inducted into
the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997.
Bennett received a
lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and
Publishers (ASCAP) in 2002.
In 2002 Q magazine named
Tony Bennett in their list of the "50 Bands To See Before You Die".
donates his time to charitable causes, to the extent that he is sometimes
nicknamed "Tony Benefit". In April 2002 he joined Michael Jackson, Chris Tucker
and former President Bill Clinton in a fundraiser for the Democratic National
Committee at New York's Apollo Theater.
Bennett has not
remarried, but has a long-term relationship with Susan Crow (born 1966), a
former New York City educator. Together they founded (and named after Bennett's
friend) the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a public high school
dedicated to teaching the performing arts which opened in 2001. It was a tribute
in return, for in a 1965 Life magazine interview Sinatra had said that:
"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."
Danny Bennett continues
to be Tony's manager while Dae Bennett is a recording engineer who has worked on
a number of Tony's projects and who has opened Bennett Studios in Englewood, New
Jersey. Tony's younger daughter Antonia is an aspiring jazz singer.
On December 4, 2005,
Bennett was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor. Later, a theatrical musical
revue of his songs, called I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennet
was created and featured some of his best-known songs such as "I Left My Heart
in San Francisco", "Because of You", and "Wonderful". The following year,
Bennett was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
In August 2006 Bennett
turned 80 years old. The birthday itself was an occasion for publicity, which
then extended through the rest of the year, as his album Duets: An American
Classic was released and sold very well; concerts were given, including a
high-profile one for New York radio station WLTW-FM; a performance made with
Christina Aguilera on Saturday Night Live; a Thanksgiving-time, Rob
Marshall-directed television special Tony Bennett: An American Classic on NBC;
and receipt of the Billboard Century Award.
For a detailed
discography, see Tony Bennett discography.
William Ruhlmann's All
Music Guide biography
All Music Guide entry on
AARP interview, 2003
NPR interview, c. 2001
Web News Cleveland
Whitburn, Joel. The
Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. Billboard Pubs, 1983. ISBN 0-8230-7511-7.
Liner notes for The
Essential Tony Bennett. Columbia Records, 2002.
Tony Bennett at the
Internet Movie Database
Bennett, Tony. Tony
Bennett : What My Heart Has Seen. Rizzoli, 1996. ISBN 0-8478-1972-8.
Bennett, Tony, with Will
Friedwald. The Good Life: The Autobiography Of Tony Bennett. Pocket Books, 1998.
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