The Kennedy Center

Tony Bennett


Tony Bennett
(singer; born in Astoria, New York, August 3, 1926)

There is no one, anywhere, quite like Tony Bennett. His rags to riches story is also a tale of the good life, the generous embodiment of American music at its sweetest and its best. Frank Sinatra once praised him as "the best singer in the business." From San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel to New York's Carnegie Hall, from Pearl Bailey's Greenwich Village show to the MTV Music Video Awards, holding the stage in style on his own or alongside everyone from Bill Evans and Count Basie to Elvis Costello and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The sheer breadth of his long career is dazzling. Here is an artist who enjoyed his first singing gig at the age of 10, on stage with New York's legendary Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at the 1936 opening of the Triborough Bridge. After six decades, many gold and platinum records, and 10 Grammys including a Lifetime Achievement Award, Tony Bennett scored an unprecedented hit with his own MTV Unplugged. "Tony Bennett has not bridged the generation gap," enthused the New York Times, "he has demolished it." His artistry continually reveals the timeless gifts of the Great American Songbook: not only the brightest gems of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Irving Berlin, but also "Because of You," "Rags to Riches," "Stranger in Paradise," "I've Got The World on a String," "The Best Is yet To Come," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "The Good Life," "Steppin' Out" and a treasure of other unforgettable songs make up a growing legacy that so far includes more than 50 million albums sold. With his husky warm and easy tenor, with his always surprising jazzy phrasing and his pitch-perfect sense of emotional truth, the man makes music matter.

"I'm very spoiled," confessed Bennett, "I never sing songs I don't like." Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in the Astoria section of Queens. The boy attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he was able to follow his twin loves of painting and music. He worked as a singing waiter, and later he sang with military bands. Turning 18, he enlisted in the army and served in combat in France and Germany. He later sang with the American Forces Network Orchestra and studied music in Heidelberg University. Back home after the war, thanks to the G.I. Bill, he studied voice at the American Theatre Wing. Singing came easy: He had grown up listening to and admiring Crosby, Cole, Garland, Sinatra—and he knew how a song should be sung. A string of jobs led to a break opening for Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in 1949. Bob Hope came one night, liked the kid and asked him to sing in his show at the Paramount. Tony at the time was billed as Joe Bari, a name Hope did not care for. "I told him my name was Anthony Dominick Benedetto," recalled the singer years later, "and Bob said ‘We'll call you Tony Bennett'."

In 1950, he cut a demo album that brought him to the attention of Mitch Miller and Columbia Records. In 1951 Tony Bennett had his first hit, "Because of You." It soared to the top of the pop charts and stayed there for 10 weeks. "Cold, Cold Heart," "Rags to Riches," and Stranger in Paradise," all chart-toppers, saw Bennett weather the dawn of the rock and roll revolution in the 1950s, staying in the Billboard Top Forty and branching out into television with his own variety show in 1956.

Bennett turned to jazz, at the suggestion of his pianist Ralph Sharon, beginning in 1957 with the album Beat of My Heart—a critically acclaimed collaboration with Herbie Mann, Nat Adderley, Art Blakey, and other prominent jazz instrumentalists. He then became the first male vocalist to front the Count Basie Orchestra, creating two now-classic albums: Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958), and In Person! Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra (1959). A landmark 1962 jazz concert at Carnegie Hall boasted 44 songs that became his, including "I've Got The World on a String" and "The Best Is Yet To Come." Also in 1962, Bennett released "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," which spent a year on the charts, won multiple Grammys and became an American classic.

The turbulent 1960s saw Bennett exploring, everything from a movie role in The Oscar to a musical dip into psychedelia, Tony Bennett Sings the Songs of Today!. Still, it was the songs not just of today but of always that reclaimed his attention, and his single "What Is This Thing Called Love?" was just one of the decidedly un-psychedelic hits Bennett had from a pair of albums in collaboration with Bill Evans. It was Tony's son Danny who thought to showcase his dad for younger audiences, booking guest spots on the David Letterman show, "The Simpsons" and on MTV. Dressed in a tux and singing as he had for another generation in Carnegie Hall, Tony was very much at home. His music video of "Steppin' Out With My Baby" remains one of the unlikeliest and most likable of all MTV hits. His 1994 Unplugged won the top Grammy for Album of the Year. His latest string of Grammy winners was just getting going, with affectionate, jazzy tributes to Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, in addition to very special albums dedicated to Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra: Steppin' Out and Simply Frank.

A champion of the civil rights movement, Bennett had spoken out against racial segregation while he served in the army in the 1940s and, in 1965, participated in the historic marches to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Later, he also would join the artistic boycott of apartheid South Africa. Bennett also has raised millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

He never abandoned his painting and still finds time to work with brushes when he is not singing. His original paintings each year are reproduced as greeting cards to raise funds for the American Cancer Foundation. Painting under his real name Benedetto, he has exhibited at prestigious galleries and has received commissions from the United Nations, where his art hangs. When his friend David Hockney famously drew Bennett, the singer returned the favor with a painted Homage to Hockney that hangs permanently in the Butler Institute of American Art. In 2001, Bennett and his partner Susan Crow paid tribute to yet another friend and founded the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts in Queens, a public high school dedicated to teaching the performing arts.

"I need two lifetimes," Tony Bennett has said. "I'll never get it finished." Perhaps. But what he has given us so far is immensely good.

September 2005
Tony Bennett


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