Home   >   Movie Stars   >   B   >   Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett 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.

Early life

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in the Astoria section of Queens in New York City. His father was a grocer and his mother a seamstress.

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 Arts 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.

This was interrupted when Benedetto was drafted into the United States Army in 1944 during World War II. He served in a combat position in the 63rd Infantry Division in France and Germany, until some remarks he made against racial segregation led to his being reassigned. Subsequently he sang with the Army military band and studied music at Heidelberg University.

Upon his discharge from the Army 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. Adopting the stage name Joe Bari, 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.

First successes

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 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. 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 and elsewhere.

In 1952 Bennett married Ohio art student 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 Daegal (Dae).

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; it topped the charts for eight weeks. Later that year by Stranger in Paradise from the Broadway show Kismet also reached the top. In between these were a number of other songs that made it high onto the pop charts.

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.

A growing artistry

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 that Bennett should try a jazz album.

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. 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 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 Century.

Bennett's following album, I Wanna Be Around (1963) was also a top 5 success, with the title track and The Good Life reaching #14 and #18 respectively on the singles 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 received.

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.

Years of struggle

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.

In 1971 Bennett and his wife Patricia were divorced, their marriage a victim (Bennett said) of too much time on the road. In 1972 he married Sandra Grant, whom he had met while making a film. 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 expatriots 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.

Turnaround

After a near-death 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 I make."

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 tremenedous 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. Also in 1979, Tony Bennett 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.

An unexpected audience

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 Grammies for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance (Bennett's first Grammies 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 compromises."

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 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 back.

No retirement

Since then Bennett has continued to record and tour steadily. In concert Bennett often makes a point of singing one song 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 Emmy Award.

A series of albums, often based on themes (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, blues, duets) have met with good acceptance; Bennett has won five more Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance or Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammies in the subsequent years, most recently in 2003. 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.

Bennett frequently donates his time to charitable causes, to the extent that he is sometimes nicknamed Tony Benefit.

Bennett has not remarried, but has a long-term relationship with Susan Crow, 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.

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.


Note: This profile was written in or before 2005.

Tony Bennett Facts

Birth NameAnthony Dominick Benedetto
OccupationMusician
BirthdayAugust 3, 1926 (91)
SignLeo
BirthplaceAstoria, New York, USA
Awards2007 Emmy Awards: Outstanding Individual Performance In A Variety Or Music Program (for Tony Bennett: An American Classic)

Selected Filmography

Tony Bennett Duets II: The Great Performances
Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends
Cheek to Cheek
Tony Bennett's Wonderful World: Live In San Francisco
Tony Bennett: Duets
Tony Bennett: An American Classic
Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett: Cheek to Cheek
Tony Bennett: Duets Ii: The Great Performances
The New Season
Continue » Find more details on the Tony Bennett Movies page