Tony Bennett, Last of a Generation of Crooners, is Mourned

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Tony Bennett, via his Facebook page in 2019

Tony Bennett, whose career spanned popular music for more than seven decades, died Friday, July 21, 2023, at age 96. During his celebrated career, the great singer’s recording peers ranged from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga, who became his champion in his later years. His publicist, Sylvia Weiner, announced his death.

On Feb. 1, 2021, Bennett revealed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease four years earlier. The singing legend and his wife, Susan, shared that heartbreaking news in an interview with AARP. Classic rockers are among those paying tribute to the legend. See many of them below.

Twelve hours after news of his passing was announced, his wife and son made a follow-up post.

“Thank you to all the fans, friends and colleagues of Tony’s who celebrated his life and humanity and shared their love of him and his musical legacy. From his first performances as a singing waiter in Queens to his last performances in 2021 at Radio City Music Hall, Tony delighted in performing the songs he loved and making people happy. And as sad as today has been for all of us we can find joy in Tony’s legacy forever.”

– Susan Benedetto and Danny Bennett

From the official bio on his website: Through his dedication to excellence and his insistence on quality, Bennett became the keeper of the flame by extolling the virtues and values represented by the Great American Songbook. He performed for eleven U.S. Presidents, was a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp, and marched side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma to support civil rights. Throughout his life, Bennett was a dedicated pacifist and proactive humanitarian.

No one in popular American music recorded for so long and at such a high level of excellence than Bennett. The essence of his longevity and high artistic achievement was imbued in him in his loving, childhood home in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, where he was born on August 3, 1926. His father died when Tony was 10 and his mother, Anna, raised Tony and his older brother and sister, John and Mary, in a home surrounded by loving relatives who were Tony’s first fans, filling him with encouragement and optimism. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he continued nurturing his two passions: singing and painting. From the radio, he developed a love of music hearing Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante.

Tony Bennett (Photo: Herman Leonard; used with permission)

As a teenager, Tony sang while waiting on tables and then enlisted in the Army during World War II and while in Europe he performed with military bands. He later had vocal studies at the American Theatre Wing School. The first time Bennett sang in a nightclub was in 1946 when he sat in with trombonist Tyree Glenn at the Shangri-La in Astoria. Bennett’s big break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope noticed him working with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in New York City. As Bennett recalled, “Bob Hope came down to check out my act. He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on, kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’ But first he told me he didn’t care for my stage name (Joe Bari) and asked me what my real name was. I told him, ‘My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto,’ and he said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.’ And that’s how it happened. A new Americanized name—the start of a wonderful career and a glorious adventure that has continued for over 60 years.”

With millions of records sold worldwide and platinum and gold albums to his credit, Bennett received 19 Grammy Awards—including a 1995 Grammy for Record of the Year for his MTV Unplugged CD, which introduced this American master to a whole new generation—and the Grammy Lifetime Award. His initial successes came via a string of Columbia singles in the early 1950s, including such chart-toppers as “Because of You,” “Rags to Riches,” and a remake of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” He had 24 songs in the Top 40, including “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me),” and his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which garnered him two Grammy Awards.

Watch Bennett sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “I Wanna Be Around” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967

Bennett is one of a handful of artists to have had new albums charting in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and now in the first two decades of the 21st century. He introduced a multitude of songs into the Great American Songbook that have since become standards for pop music. He toured the world to sold-out audiences with rave reviews. Bennett re-signed with Columbia Records in 1986 and released the critically acclaimed The Art of Excellence. Since his 1991 show-stopping performance at the Grammy Awards of “When Do The Bells Ring For Me,” from his Astoria album, he has received a string of Grammy Awards for releases including Stepping Out, Perfectly Frank, and MTV Unplugged.

In the new millennium, Bennett’s artistry and popularity was higher than ever. In 2006, the year of his 80th birthday, his Duets: An American Classic was released. The album—which included performances with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Bono and others—won three Grammy Awards and went on to be one of the best-selling CDs of the year, and of Bennett’s career. Bennett’s first Duets album also inspired the Rob Marshall-directed television special Tony Bennett: An American Classic, which won seven Emmys, making it the most honored program at the 2007 Emmy Awards. In celebration of his 85th birthday in 2011 the release of Bennett’s highly anticipated Duets II featured him performing with a new roster of celebrated artists, including the late Amy Winehouse (her last recording was their duet of “Body and Soul”), Michael Bublé, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban, Lady Gaga, John Mayer and many others. Duets II debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart, making Bennett the only artist at the age of 85 to achieve this in the history of recorded music.

Listen to Bennett and John Mayer duet on “One for My Baby:

Bennett won two Grammys for Duets II in the 2012 Grammy ceremony and that year marked the 50th anniversary of the recording and release of his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” His collaborative jazz album with Lady Gaga, released in 2014, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, making Bennett, at the age of 88, the oldest artist to have a #1 album—breaking his own previously established historical record. “Cheek To Cheek” won a Grammy in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal category. Bennett’s 2015 release, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal album.

Ten days after he passed, Lady Gaga wrote a lengthy tribute to “my friend. I will miss singing with him, recording with him, talking with him, being on stage together.”

On August 3, 2016, Tony Bennett celebrated his 90th birthday, which was marked by the lighting of the Empire State Building in honor of his musical legacy along with a star-studded celebration at the famed Rainbow Room.

What many in the July 2016 crowd probably did not know was that Billy Joel’s guest was just weeks away from turning 90.

Later that year NBC aired a two-hour prime-time special, Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best is Yet to Come, which featured performances by Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Michael Bublé and many more.

James Taylor shared a stunningly poignant tribute on his Facebook page: “Tony was such a bright light in our world and the longevity of his career gave him a depth, a gravitas that tied together two main generations of contemporary, popular music, Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder. Our baby boom generation turned away from our parents’ music: Sinatra and the Las Vegas Rat Pack ethos, Big Band swing and Broadway. In the mid 60s, starting with folk music and Dylan, then the Beatles, Motown, Memphis, San Francisco… we would have our own music, and we drew a distinct line with the past. Somehow, Tony Bennett weathered that abandonment and persevered. Then, in his late 70s, he was reborn. I remember his MTV Unplugged appearance. Tony was back on top and there was never a more worthy comeback.”

Taylor continued: “He embodied the sophistication and urbane gentility of the High Society Jazz Era but without the macho arrogance and decadence of the Rat Pack, as parodied on SNL by Bill Murray’s lounge lizard [routine]. I never met a more believably positive person. He radiated his love of being alive. You never got a whiff of sarcasm or cynicism. I first met him at a benefit (for something which now escapes me) but he was immediately open and present and, when he told me he dug my music, I totally believed him. Whenever our paths crossed, he’d insist I run for President. I was never completely sure he was kidding.

“He offered advice on maintaining my voice and gave me a tape of Bel Canto exercises that I still use today: ‘Use it or lose it, James.’ We must have worked together a dozen times. He joined me for my series at Carnegie Hall and later invited me to sing on his Duets album; a high point for me. Whenever I wonder just how long I should carry on touring and performing in public, I think of his example: Tony Bennett, the greatest last man standing…”

Herb Alpert wrote, “The Tony Bennett I knew was an unpretentious humble musical giant.”

Elton John wrote, “So sad to hear of Tony’s passing. Without doubt the classiest singer, man, and performer you will ever see. He’s irreplaceable. I loved and adored him. Condolences to Susan, Danny and the family.”

Bonnie Raitt wrote, “One of the greatest singers of all time, and one of the warmest, most joyful and evolved people I’ve ever known. One of the honors of my lifetime was getting to duet with him on his Bennett Sings the Blues album back in 2001. My love and sympathy go out to his family and don’t we know there’ll be some swingin’ on high when Tony passes through those gates.”

On Aug. 3, Bennett’s birthday, Elvis Costello finally posted a tribute along with a great photo of the pair taken in New York’s Central Park. He explained why, “I have been at a rare loss for words since the passing of Tony Bennett, still amazed that I had ever met him, much less that I got to spend time with him, talking about music, art or family, let alone record or share the stage with him or that I would be granted such privileged proximity to witness his more substantial collaborations with my wife, Diana Krall.”

Bennett became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2005, was named an NEA Jazz Master in January of 2006, and received a Citizen of the World award from the United Nations. In 2017, the Library of Congress presented him with the Gershwin Prize, marking the first time the honor has been bestowed upon an “interpretive singer” as, to that date, it had only been given to composers.

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3 Comments so far

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  1. Rosie
    #1 Rosie 22 July, 2023, 09:20

    Love you Tony. Miss you and your golden pipes. San Francisco will always be yours. [sigh] Bye, my Love!

    Reply this comment
  2. Mikethedude
    #2 Mikethedude 22 July, 2023, 10:12

    The last of the great singers from my Dad’s generation. A very humble man who blessed us with his great talent. And that great smile. He walked with MLK and was true to his beliefs be it music or the treatment of his fellow man.

    Reply this comment
  3. Jeff
    #3 Jeff 23 July, 2023, 03:05

    In my opinion Spring in Manhattan ranks number two to San Francisco. Check it out Tony’s Great Fans. The most distinguished voice of our great 60s generation. RIP Tony love you till I pass.

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