As I approached the end of this very busy week, I gathered all the information needed for the post you are reading right now. However, I grappled to find a proper title. Of course, this week we are featuring legendary musical artist Tony Bennett, but it seemed impossible to condense such a long and successful career to just a few words. I thought about using a quote from another entertainer about the singing icon. Nothing seemed to work. Then I got the idea to use my quote. The very words I used to describe Tony Bennett. Thus, you see the very simple title that says so much about Bennett. Trust me, Tony Bennett’s music career is like five great musical careers of today’s counterparts. Please continue to read the rest of this post as I try to offer a little background information.
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926, in Astoria, Queens, New York, just a few days before my father. Young Tony grew up listening to Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby as well as jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, and Joe Venuti. His Uncle Dick was a tap dancer in vaudeville, giving him an early window into show business. By age 10 he was already singing, and performed at the opening of the Triborough Bridge, standing next to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia who patted him on the head. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he continued nurturing his two passions, singing and painting. He dropped out at age 16 to help support his family. Tony Bennett worked as a copy boy and runner for the Associated Press in Manhattan and in several other low-skilled, low-paying jobs. However, he mostly set his sights on a professional singing career, performing as a singing waiter, playing and winning amateur nights all around the city.
Tony Bennett was drafted into the United States Army in November 1944, during the last stages of World War II. At the war’s conclusion, Bennett stayed in Germany as part of the occupying force, but was assigned to an informal Special Services band unit that would entertain nearby American forces. Upon his discharge from the Army and return to the States in 1946, Bennett studied at the American Theatre 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. He continued to perform wherever he could, including while waiting tables. Based upon a suggestion from a teacher at American Theatre Wing, he developed an unusual approach that involved imitating, as he sang, the style and phrasing of other musicians — such as that of Stan Getz’s saxophone and Art Tatum’s piano — helping him to improvise as he interpreted a song.
The first time Bennett sang in a nightclub was in 1946 when he sat in with trombonist Tyree Glenn at the Shangri-La in Astoria. Bennett’s big break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope noticed him working with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in New York City. As Bennett recalls, “Bob Hope came down to check out my act. He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’
In 1950, Tony Bennett cut a demo of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and was signed to the major Columbia Records label by Mitch Miller. His first big hit was “Because of You”, a ballad produced by Miller with a lush orchestral arrangement from Percy Faith. It started out gaining popularity on jukeboxes, then reached number one on the pop charts in 1951 and stayed there for ten weeks, selling over a million copies.
With millions of records sold worldwide and platinum and gold albums to his credit, Bennett has received nineteen Grammy Awards—including a 1995 Grammy for Record of the Year for his “MTV Unplugged” CD, which introduced this American master to a whole new generation—and the Grammy Lifetime Award. His 2007 prime-time special, “Tony Bennett: An American Classic,” won seven Emmy Awards. Tony Bennett is one of a handful of artists to have new albums charting in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and now in the first two decades of the 21st century.
I was discussing the musical relevance of various artists with several music fans recently, and many artists of our day were mentioned. The criteria primarily was active music recording, and later music sales. Tony Bennett is that one artist who continues to enjoy popularity – even after celebrating his 90th birthday just three months ago. He has introduced a multitude of songs into the Great American Songbook that have since become standards for pop music. Bennett has toured the world to sold out audiences with rave reviews when he performs. The most remarkable thing about Bennett’s longevity in the music industry, is that he has not changed his style. He continues to display a standard that has remained the same well over sixty years. The music fans keep coming.
Regarding his choices in music, Bennett reiterated his artistic stance in a 2010 interview: I’m not staying contemporary for the big record companies, I don’t follow the latest fashions. I never sing a song that’s badly written. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was a renaissance in music that was the equivalent of the artistic Renaissance. Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and others just created the best songs that had ever been written. These are classics, and finally they’re not being treated as light entertainment. This is classical music.
Tony Bennett has performed and recorded duets with some of the biggest names in modern times. His most recent duets with international superstar Lady Gaga proves his appeal to artists and audiences much younger, but fiercely interested in the Bennett standard of music making.
There has been no mention of retirement or slowing down. As I write this post Tony Bennett is preparing to sing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade later this month. He also has stated he wishes to record with Beyoncé Knowles sometime soon. That should be a treat. Bennett keeps several live performance dates, therefore you might be able to see him in your city or at least very near. Yes, after all these years and many changes throughout the world, the wonderful singer of great songs is still Tony Bennett.