Bennett, Tony (1926—)

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Bennett, Tony (1926—)

Through perseverance, professionalism, and impeccable musical taste, Tony Bennett has emerged in the era of MTV as the senior statesman of the American popular song. Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens, New York, Bennett joined the Italian-American bel canto tradition represented by such singers as Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone. In fact, Sinatra often publicly referred to Bennett as his favorite singer, a validation that undoubtedly means as much as a handful of gold records and Grammy awards combined.

Bennett's musical career started slowly. After serving in the armed forces in the final months of World War II, he studied vocal technique under the GI Bill and supported himself with a variety of jobs, including, according to some sources, a stint as a singing waiter. His first break occurred when he came in second to Rosemary Clooney on the network television show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in 1950. This exposure led to an introduction to Bob Hope, who helped Bennett to land an engagement in one of New York's premier clubs. Later that year, Mitch Miller signed Bennett as a recording artist for Columbia Records, and in 1951 he was named male vocalist of the year by Cashbox magazine.

Always attracted to jazz as well as pop styling, Bennett teamed up with some of the top musicians of the day, which gave him the freedom to choose songs that were more to his taste than the hit-oriented recording business normally allowed. Numerous records during the mid and late 1950s show Bennett at his best, singing jazz-inflected standards like "These Foolish Things" and "Blues in the Night."

Nevertheless, Bennett experienced a long hitless period in the early 1960s. It was during this time that the singer and his longtime arranger and accompanist Ralph Sharon played a gig at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where Bennett sang a new song by little-known writers George Cory and Douglass Cross for the first time. That song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," changed the course of Bennett's career, earning him a sustained place on the charts in both the United States and Great Britain. It also brought Bennett two Grammy awards, for record of the year and best male vocal performance.

With his new public image, Bennett moved from supper clubs to the concert stage, giving a landmark recorded performance at Carnegie Hall. In the mid-1960s, he had hits with such singles as "The Good Life," "A Taste of Honey," and "Fly Me to the Moon." Soon after that, however, Bennett, like other interpreters of American pop standards by Arlen, Gershwin, and Porter, began to suffer from the record companies' stubborn commitment to rock and roll. Bennett was not interested in singing songs he did not love, although he did compromise on a 1970 album titled Tony Bennett Sings the Great Hits of Today, which included such songs as "MacArthur Park," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Little Green Apples." More to his taste were two albums made on the Improv label with the great jazz pianist Bill Evans in 1975 and 1977. Bennett also appeared with Evans at the Newport Jazz Festival and at Carnegie Hall.

In 1979, Bennett's son Danny, a former rock guitarist, took over his management, with a combination of shrewd marketing and musical acuity that helped his father bridge the gap between the old and new pop scene. It was this teaming that eventually led to the MTV video and album Tony Bennett Unplugged in 1994. In an era when smooth and mellow lounge music was reborn and martinis were once again the official cocktail, the album was a huge hit. Always generous to his younger colleagues—just as another generation of entertainers had been generous to him—Bennett gave high praise to k.d. lang, who joined him for a duet of "Moonglow," and to Elvis Costello, who harmonized on "They Can't Take That Away from Me."

In addition to his singing career, Bennett is a serious painter in oils, watercolors, and pastels. His work has been exhibited widely, and he claims David Hockney as a major influence. A graduate of New York's High School of Industrial Art, Bennett often paints familiar New York scenes, such as yellow cabs racing down a broad avenue and Sunday bicyclers in Central Park, capturing the milieu in which he lived, sang, and observed.

—Sue Russell

Further Reading:

Bennett, Tony, with Will Friedwald. The Good Life. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Hemming, Roy, and David Hajdu. Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop. New York, Newmarket Press, 1991.

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Bennett, Tony (1926—)

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