One of the last surviving ‘saloon singers’ of the big band era, he survived the rise of rock music and at the age of eighty-eight broke the record as the oldest living artist to have a number one album on the Billboard charts. Tony Bennett (born Anthony Benedetto August 3, 1926) was a renowned vocalist who graced the world with his timeless music and enchanting voice for over seven decades. Throughout his illustrious career, he not only achieved commercial success but also became a symbol of class and elegance. Bennett’s journey from a young, aspiring singer to an iconic figure in the music industry is a testament to his unmatched talent and unwavering dedication to his craft.
Bennett was born in Queens, New York, to an Italian-American family. He was raised in a modest and loving environment, where music played an essential role in shaping his passion. Bennett’s earliest exposure to music came through his father, who loved to sing Neapolitan songs. This early introduction to music ignited a spark within young Tony and set him on a path towards discovering his own musical talents.
During his teenage years, Bennett began to perform in New York area saloons and nightclubs. His idol was the legendary crooner Bing Crosby, whose smooth and velvety voice left a profound impact on the young Tony. Inspired by Crosby’s relaxed style and charisma, Bennett worked tirelessly to hone his own vocal skills and develop a unique sound that would eventually set him apart from others in the industry.
Bennett’s big break came in the early 1950s when he was discovered by Bob Hope while singing in a Greenwich Village nightclub. This led to a record deal with Columbia Records, and his first major hit, “Because of You,” in 1951. The song soared to the top of the charts, establishing Tony Bennett as a rising star in the music world. Throughout the 1950s, he continued to produce numerous hit records, including “Rags to Riches” and “Stranger in Paradise.”
However, it was in 1962 that Bennett’s career took an unforgettable turn. He released “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” a song that would become his signature tune and solidify his place in musical history. The song earned him two Grammy Awards and elevated him to iconic status. A bronze statue was erected in Tony’s honor in front of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where Bennett debuted “I Left My Heart” in the hotel’s iconic Venetian Room. Bennett’s mastery of phrasing and his ability to infuse emotion into every lyric made him an unparalleled performer, captivating audiences worldwide. The song forever cemented in the hearts of San Franciscans. Bennett performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in front of more than 100,000 fans at a celebration commemorating the World Series victory by the San Francisco Giants in 2012.
While Tony Bennett was undoubtedly celebrated for his singing, he was also a skilled painter, and his talents extended beyond the realm of music. Over the years, he created a remarkable collection of paintings, which were exhibited in prestigious galleries across the globe. He was named the official artist for the Kentucky Derby in 2001, and the United Nations commissioned him to create two paintings, including one for the UN’s 50th anniversary.
Bennett was known for his openness to embracing various musical genres, which helped him remain relevant to younger audiences while maintaining the admiration of his longtime fans. He frequently collaborated with contemporary artists such as Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse, demonstrating his adaptability and artistic range. Speaking about his chart-topping album with Lady Gaga, Bennett observed “I’m not staying contemporary for the big record companies, I don’t follow the latest fashions. I never sing a song that’s badly written. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was a renaissance in music that was the equivalent of the artistic Renaissance. Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and others just created the best songs that had ever been written. These are classics, and finally they’re not being treated as light entertainment. This is classical music.”
Tony Bennett’s influence on the world of music extended far beyond his chart-topping hits. He embodied the true essence of a performer, exuding class, grace, and a genuine love for his craft. His commitment to promoting traditional pop and jazz music ensured that these genres continued to thrive long after their heyday.
In addition to his musical achievements, Bennett also actively participated in the civil rights movement, advocating for racial equality. He refused to perform at segregated venues, even when it meant risking his own career. His dedication to social justice issues and using his platform for positive change showcased the depth of his character and integrity.
Throughout his career, Bennett received numerous accolades and awards, including 20 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. His legacy lives on through his timeless music, which continues to inspire aspiring musicians and captivate audiences across generations.
Tony Bennett’s life and musical career were a remarkable journey of passion, perseverance, and artistic brilliance. From his humble beginnings in Queens, New York, to becoming an “adopted son of San Francisco” and one of the most celebrated vocalists in history, Bennett’s indelible impact on the music world will forever be remembered. Through his enchanting voice, unmatched talent, and unwavering commitment to his principles, Tony Bennett touched the hearts of millions and left an enduring legacy that will resonate for generations to come. Though he may have left us, his music and spirit live on, reminding us of the timeless power of true artistry.
Tony Bennett died July 21st, 2023, less than two weeks shy of his 97th birthday. Bennett died in his hometown of New York his publicist said in a statement. While the cause was not immediately disclosed, the singer bravely revealed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in February of 2021.
The music of recording artist Tony Bennett can be heard on Swing Street Radio.
Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Benny Goodman’s butler.