Bennett, Tony (originally, Anthony Dominick Benedetto)
Bennett, Tony (originally, Anthony Dominick Benedetto)
Bennett, Tony (originally, Anthony Dominick Benedetto), celebratory American singer; b. Queens, N.Y., Aug. 3, 1926. Bennett, a husky-voiced tenor shading to baritone in later life, continued to extol the virtues of the classic pop songwriters far into the rock era, eventually developing a new audience not yet born when he scored his initial flurry of pop hits. Those recordings, such as “Because of You”“Cold, Cold Heart” and “Rags to Riches” established him as a major pop singer of the early 1950s. A decade later, with his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and other recordings, he became a leading classic pop interpreter just before the second wave of rock ’n’ roll arrived with The Beatles. Like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, he moved more toward jazz in the 1970s, but in the 1980s he mounted a stunning commercial comeback culminating in a performance on MTV that led to a gold record and Album of the Year Grammy in 1994.
Bennett’s father, John Benedetto, was an Italian immigrant who ran a grocery in Manhattan on the eventual site of the building housing Columbia Records. He died when Bennett was nine, and Bennett’s mother, Anna Suraci Benedetto, went to work in the garment industry to support the family. He attended the H.S. of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, studying music and painting, and later remembered the influence of a music teacher named Mr. Sondberg. By his teens he was singing in clubs in Queens. Drafted into the army in 1944, he served in Europe in the last days of World War II and was discharged in 1946. Using the G.I. Bill, he studied voice at the American Theater Wing with Peter D’Andrea and Miriam Spier.
In 1949, after years of struggling for a foothold in the entertainment business, Bennett was hired to perform in a revue at the Greenwich Village Inn, where he was seen by Bob Hope. Hope put him onstage at the Paramount Theater in Times Square and gave him his stage name. He was signed to Columbia Records by Mitch Miller in 1950 and released his first single, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin). That summer he appeared on the television series Songs for Sale.
Bennett made his commercial breakthrough with “Because of You” (music by Dudley Wilkinson, lyrics by Arthur Hammerstein), which topped the charts in September 1951 and sold a million copies. He followed it with “Cold, Cold Heart” (music and lyrics by Hank Williams), another gold record that hit #1 in November. On Feb. 12, 1952, he married Patricia Ann Beech; they had two sons, D’Andrea (Danny) and Daegal, and divorced in 1971. He continued to reach the charts over the next two years but didn’t score another big hit until “Rags to Riches” (music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) went to #1 in 1953 and was a million-seller; it was immediately followed by another gold single, “Stranger in Paradise” (music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, music based on the first theme from the Polovetsian Dances from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor).
Bennett scored three more Top Ten hits through the end of the decade, but the rise of rock ’n’ roll after 1955 limited his commercial success. Meanwhile, he toured clubs nationally. He hosted the summer replacement series for Perry Corno in 1956 (The Tony Bennett Show) and (Perry Presents) in 1959. He also performed with jazz musicians, notably on two albums backed by Count Basie’s orchestra.
Bennett released the album I Left My Heart in San Francisco in June 1962 (title song music by George Cory, lyrics by Douglass Cross). The album hit the Top Ten and went gold, and the single hit the Top 40 and won him Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male. From then on the song was identified with him. The result was a considerable career resurgence. His next single, “I Wanna Be Around” (music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt), was another Top 40 hit that brought a Record of the Year Grammy nomination, and the I Wanna Be Around album reached the Top Ten.
Bennett’s albums of the mid-1960s regularly placed among the 50 best-sellers. He earned Grammy nominations for Best Vocal Performance, Male, in 1964 for “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) and in 1965 for “The Shadow of Your Smile (theme from The Sandpipers)” (music by Johnny Mandel, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster). His 1965 compilation album Tony’s Greatest Hits, Volume III went gold. Bennett began living with Sandra Grant in the late 1960s, and she bore him a daughter, Joanna, in 1970. Following his divorce from his first wife, they were married on Dec. 29, 1971. They had a second daughter, Antonia, and later divorced.
Bennett’s record sales began to fall off in 1967, and by the end of the decade Columbia was pressuring him to record the songs of contemporary rock performers. He acceded on such albums as Tony Bennett Sings the Great Hits of Today!, but he was unhappy with the approach, and it did not restore his commercial fortunes. In 1972 he left Columbia for MGM/Verve, and made one album, The Good Things in Life. In 1975 he recorded an album with jazz pianist Bill Evans for Fantasy Records and formed his own label, Improv Records, for which he recorded several albums. When the label foundered in the late 1970s, he was without a record contract. But he continued to tour regularly, playing concert halls and hotel /casinos around the world. With the upsurge of interest in classic pop in the 1980s, Bennett, by now being managed by his son Danny, re-signed to Columbia in 1986 and released The Art of Excellence, his first chart album in more than 13 years. He followed it with a series of carefully considered collections largely devoted to pop standards. Perfectly Frank (1992), an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, went gold and won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance. Steppin’ Out (1993), an album of songs associated with Fred Astaire, won the same award the following year.
Bennett appeared on the Unplugged series on the cable music network MTV in 1994. The resulting MTV Unplugged album went gold and won Grammys for Album of the Year and, for the third year in a row, Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance. Bennett won the same vocal performance Grammy in 1996 for Here’s to the Ladies and in 1997 for Tony Bennett on Holiday, an album of songs associated with Billie Holiday. In 1998 he released The Playground, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Musical Album for Children.
With W. Friedwald, The Good Life. (N.Y., 1998).
I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1962); Tony’s Greatest Hits, Volume III (1965); The Art of Excellence (1986); Perfectly Frank (1992); Steppin’ Out (1993); MTV Unplugged (1994); Here’s to the Ladies (1996); Tony Bennett on Holiday (1997); The Playground (1998).
T. Jasper, T B.: A Biography (London, 1984).