Remembering Tony Bennett: The Crooner for The Ages

Photo Credit: Adam McCullough

One of music’s all-time most prolific and iconic singers, Tony Bennett died on July 21 at age ninety-six, leaving behind a body of work that spanned an astonishing seven decades. Bennett was a classic crooner, typically considered to be in the same vein as Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Andy Williams and others. However, Bennett not only outlived nearly all his contemporaries but also found surprising ways to reach new audiences late in his career while remaining true to who he was as a performer.

Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926 in New York City to Italian immigrant parents. He began singing at an early age, but like most young men at the time he was drafted into the military during World War II, where he served in the US Army as part of the European Theater. Bennett returned to his pursuit of a singing career after the war and began recording in 1949, although it would be a few years before his work would start getting noticed.

While he performed almost exclusively in the jazz-based music style that was popular in the decade after the war (and he always would), from early on Bennett had been advised against emulating Frank Sinatra too closely, and the difference ended up being enough to give Bennett a distinction which would forever remain (in 1965 Sinatra would call Bennett “the best singer in the business”). Bennett would score three No.1 singles in the US between 1951 and 1953,

Bennett’s career survived the coming of rock ‘n’ roll and even the British Invasion, but his sales would decline by the end of the ’60s. In an ill-advised attempt to counter this, he released Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! in 1970, which featured songs by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and others, along with psychedelic cover artwork which even at the time was laughably dated. The failed experience only furthered Bennett’s professional and personal decline (ironically, a quarter century later, it would be contemporary artists who willingly conformed to Bennett’s style).

Las Vegas proved to be a much better fit for Bennett: he was always the virtual epitome of an entertainment headliner for the glitzy oasis and would stand as a major attraction there during his entire career. This was fortunate since by the end of the Seventies Bennett seemed to have little else in his favor: he was without a record deal for the first time in decades, had major tax problems and at one point nearly died from an overdose of cocaine, However, Bennett slowly worked his way back up, and his 1986 LP The Art of Excellence – where he appeared on the cover a bit more casual, in a leather jacket and a sweater – became his first album to chart in the US in fourteen years,

In 1990 Bennett became the first-ever celebrity to voice a caricature of themselves on The Simpsons, paving the way for similar appearances on the long-running animated series by hundreds of other known personalities from Bob Hope to Stephen Hawking to Ludacris. A couple of years later, Bennett was recruited by MTV to appear in some promos, which led to the singer becoming a surprise presence on the network. The MTV brass, viewers, and even Bennett himself probably realized that this was meant more as irony than a recognition of Bennett’s accomplishments.

Regardless, in 1994 Bennett became the featured performer on an episode of MTV Unplugged, a live performance program otherwise reserved for contemporary rock and pop artists. His episode was accompanied by a CD release that went platinum and ended up as one of the biggest commercial successes of his career, Bennett furthered his comeback in the 2000s with a series of albums called Duets, which featured him singing classic tunes, most of which he’d previously recorded, but now alongside singing partners ranging from Diana Krall and Michael Buble to Paul McCartney and Bono.

All three of his Duets albums went Top 5 in the US, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Bennett began the oddest yet most lucrative musical partnership of his late career, alongside Stephane Germanotta better known as Lady Gaga. Not just sixty years Bennett’s junior but also a chart-topping dance-pop diva known for the outrageous visuals featured in her videos and stage performances (such as wearing a dress made entirely of meat), the two didn’t seem like they were even from the same planet.

Yet against all reason, Cheek to Cheek, the first of Bennett and Gaga’s collaborative studio albums (done entirely in the style he was known for, not surprisingly) reached number one in the US, A follow-up album, Love For Sale, would also go Top 10 in both the US and the UK in 2021. That same year Lady Gaga would be at Bennett’s side for two sold-out concerts at Radio City Music Hall, which were filmed for the TV special One More Time. That title would prove appropriate, as these would be Bennett’s final public performances,

Bennet’s 1962 Top 20 hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is considered to be his signature tune, and while some sources claim that he had a hand in writing it, officially he has no such credit. Bennett was in fact not a songwriter at all, something which could easily draw ire in a post-Beatles world, But Tony Bennett was all about singing – first, last, and all points in between. In seventy years his popularity transcended generations, but he never needed to transcend musical styles, a claim few musical careers of his longevity can make. Even when audiences came for nostalgia or perhaps even irony, they always ended up staying for the artist.

Written by: Richard John Cummins

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