Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, August 13, 1926, in Astoria, Queens, NY; son of an Italian grocer and American seamstress; married Patricia Beech, 1952 (divorced, 1971); married Sandra Grant, 1971 (divorced, 1984); children: Danny (Bennett's manager) Daegal, Antonia, and Joanna. Addresses: Home--New York, NY. Record company--Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
Tony Bennett, the man who left his heart in San Francisco, experienced a sparkling resurgence in both popularity and record sales 40 years after first making his name in the entertainment business. Bennett, who was 57 years old when MTV first hit the airwaves, found an unlikely new audience in the younger flannel-clad generation and resurfaced with his familiar grace intact. Highlighting his return to music's inner circle, Bennett shared the stage with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 1993 MTV Music Awards. It seems that the definition of hip has evolved to include martinis, skinny ties, and torch songs--in short, all things Bennett. Even though he was once well-known for his criticism of rock music and its culture of delinquence, he embraced its audience with a performance on MTV's Unplugged, singing with Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Lemonheads heartthrob Evan Dando, and J. Mascis of the prototype grunge band Dinosaur Jr. When asked by the Observer to explain his popularity with fans born two decades after his 1951 recording debut, he remarked "They see me as a guy who's never given in, like a fighter who never took a dive. And I think they like me because I don't try to do what they do, and because I sing in an honest way."
Urged into the alternative arena by his son and manager, Danny, Bennett was at first wary of the new turn his career was taking. "I was playing Carnegie Hall or the Merv Griffin resorts and then he had me going on Letterman, and I finally said, 'What are you doing?' But he said he knew something that I didn't realize. And what he knew is that there is a huge audience that likes me even more than their parents," Bennett told Salt Lake City's Tribune. Danny Bennett sensed a growing tolerance for musical styles dynamically opposed to the screaming guitars and pounding drums that marked the tastes of the MTV set. His suspicion proved correct when Spin magazine publisher Bob Guccione, Jr. published an editorial piece that affirmed the merits of traditional crooners, Bennett included, and their silken voices. Danny Bennett commented to the Chicago Tribune, "We are living at a time when young people are expanding their horizons. It's a time when Frank Sinatra can share the top of the charts with Pearl Jam." He pushed his father toward a younger audience with appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, SCTV, and even The Simpsons. Danny also capitalized on the knowledge that members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were closet Bennett fans. He arranged a meeting between the group and his father and the result was a brief tour, with Bennett's halcyon vocal musings opening for the Chili Peppers' frenetic, bass-driven rock.
When Bennett's The Art of Excellence hit the music stores in 1986, few would have predicted that two Grammy Awards were in the near future. Danny Bennett and Columbia, however, had a hunch. Perfectly Frank and Steppin' Out captured Grammy Awards, the music business's most coveted honors, in 1992 and 1993, respectively. The first covered lesser-known Frank Sinatra songs and the second paid tribute to songs sung by Fred Astaire in his movies. Both records captured the svelte Bennett style, unchanged over the years. Though some critics diminish Bennett's resurrection as a kitsch-laden fad among younger music listeners and the growing lounge music scene as pure camp, Columbia vice-president of marketing Jay Krugman feels otherwise. He told Billboard, "This is no novelty, but a real artist spanning the decades, permeating the culture. His stature and sales perspective will continue to spread from the more traditional older audience to the MTV demo." And when the word "comeback" was used to describe his recent career history, Bennett demurely remarked to the New York Times, "Comeback? What comback?... I never went anywhere."
Strictly speaking, Bennett is correct. Though the 1970s proved to be a difficult period for artists of Bennett's ilk, he never gave up touring and still logs 200 days a year on the road. "When I stopped recording," Bennett told the Washington Post, "I also stopped all the deadlines, and I suddenly had the freedom to think about performing, to take that energy and concentrate on what I have to do to entertain people." The only change for Bennett was the size of the room in which he performed--he retained his urbane charm and velvet delivery. Danny took over his father's management duties in 1979 with some thoughts on how to bring in a new audience and the pieces began falling into place. By 1995, Bennett was never in greater demand. "Today's young people are the most enthusiastic audience I've ever had," he told Good Housekeeping, "and all I'm doing is what I've always done--sing good songs."
Born to an Italian-born father and American mother, Bennett was raised in Astoria, Queens, a borough of New York City. Early on, Bennett was not the family's strongest prospect for a career in entertainment. His older brother John was a member of Metropolitan Opera Boys' Chorus and showed potential as an opera singer. Tony Bennett lightheartedly remarked to the Washington Post, "It was that whole Italian family pride, y'know--'he's an opera singer, this is serious.' How could I compete?" While his father worked as a grocer and his mother as a seamstress, Bennett showed a propensity for painting and drawing and a knack for imitating comedy acts he heard on radio such as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. The family's joviality quickly ended, though, after the death of Bennett's father when Bennett was only nine. Young Tony was sent to live with an uncle while his mother recuperated from the passing of her husband. The boy proved an unwelcome addition to his uncle's household and was forced to sleep on the floor and given unpleasant tasks. When his mother was ready to receive him, he happily returned to his Astoria neighborhood and attended New York's High School for the Industrial Arts, where he anticipated a career in commerical art.
When Bennett graduated, he joined the Army's 63rd Infantry Division and saw combat action in Germany in World War II. The war, as was the case for a generation of men and women, had a dramatic effect on the young New Yorker with hopes of a career in entertainment. "I saw men die there.... All the innocence goes out of you," he remarked to the Observer. Furthering his distaste for military life was a run-in with a sergeant who took a dislike toward Bennett after he had Thanksgiving dinner with a black soldier. Bennett was demoted, then given the duty of recovering bodies from mass graves left by the Germans. Despite his dislike of military service, Bennett remained for a second tour, this time as an entertainer, to sing for the troops still stationed in Europe at war's end.
Bennett returned from Europe to New York and set out to build a career in show business. In addtion to taking singing lessons on the G.I. Bill, he found a job as a singing waiter at the Pheasant Tavern in Astoria, Queens, and adopted the stage name Joe Bari. Working for $15 a week, Bennett told Life, was a wonderful experience. "I loved the job. I figured, if I do this for the next 20 years, fine. I get to sing." Though Bennett's work satisfied his professional aspirations, his mother felt that he could do better and she implored her son to find more lucrative employment. Since falling to the status of lower-middle-class after Bennett's father's death, the family needed every dollar. Bennett satisfied his mother's concerns and found a job as an elevator operator at a New York hotel, but he also continued working toward his own goal.
Performing in nightclubs in Greenwich Village in New York were the likes of Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, and the little-known Joe Bari. Bennett worked hard on the club circuit, first grabbing attention by placing second to Rosemary Clooney on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a variety show in the same vein as Ed McMahon's Star Search. That effort resulted in an invitation from Pearl Bailey to perform at her Greenwich Village Inn. Bari caught his next break when Bob Hope saw his act and brought him to the Paramount Theater to join Hope's show. Bennett's name, though, caused Hope some concern. "Just before I'm going on," Bennett told Life, "Hope tells me the name's no good. He asks what my real name is. I say Anthony Benedetto. That doesn't do it for him either. So he goes out and and says to the audience, "And here's this new singer, Tony Bennett!" He had to introduce me twice, 'cause I didn't know who he was talking about."
In 1951, again with Bob Hope's assistance, Bennett landed a recording contract with Columbia. Just months later, Bennett's "Because of You" rocketed to number one on the U.S. charts. Quick to follow were two more hits, "I Won't Cry Anymore" and "Blue Velvet." Bennett rapidly became one of the most popular American singers and a member of the illustrious "brat pack." With Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., Bennett immortalized the romantic era of American music with dozens of albums and hundreds of performances worldwide. Bennett also found time to marry Patricia Beech in 1952. Their relationship lasted 20 years before ending in divorce with Bennett on the road most of the time and constantly in the spotlight. A second marriage to Sandra Grant in 1971 met with the same fate. As he told London's Daily Mail, "The adulation put pressure on my marriages. I got too much too soon. It takes a long time to learn to live with the helium in the brain and you just kind of float away. You need lead weights to hold you down."
After a brief lull brought on by the onset of rock and roll and its new stars--with Buddy Holly and Elvis leading the way--his career was in need of a boost. What transpired in 1962 was a renewed explosion in Bennett's popularity after the release of what would become Bennett's signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." He told the Washington Post, "I've sung it for presidents and royalty, and I've been invited all over the world. It's sustained me right through the years and to hear that reaction every night when I sing it...." The rock and roll revolution, though, could not be assuaged forever and Bennett hit a professional and personal low in the early 1970s.
In 1971 Clive Davis, Columbia's president, urged Bennett to bring his style in line with the rock and roll artists who were beginning to dominate pop audiences. After releasing over 80 albums for the label based on a simple strategy of quality material and his own voice, Bennett refused. Davis reportedly told him, "No one who leaves this label is ever heard from again," wrote Robert Sullivan in Life. As rock and roll flourished and Beatlemania swept the United States, however, Bennett considered updating his act. He confessed to Life, "I asked Count Basie if I should try rock. Basie told me in that sly, wise way of his, 'Why change an apple?'"
Dark days in Bennett's professional career mirrored a steady downturn in his personal life. Alcohol and drug use conspired with changing musical tastes to leave Bennett behind. Without a recording contract, Bennett spent his time on the road. Late one night during a stay in Las Vegas and still awake from a post-performance party, Bennett gazed down from his hotel terrace and noticed a man walking the streets. The moment proved to be an epiphany for the bleary-eyed singer. "It was like a light bulb went off in my head. Very quickly I came to realize all I needed to make me happy was a drumroll, a band, and some people who want me to sing," Bennett told Good Housekeeping. "Looking back, I know I grew up only when I was already in my forties."
Giving up the trappings of stardom and staying true to his talent, Bennett managed a most unlikely return to grace. With his companion, Susan Crow, a jazz agent, Bennett spends those few days when he is not on the road at their New York apartment, reading voraciously and painting. For his second art form, he retains his given name, Anthony Benedetto, and carries brushes, canvas, and an easel on the road with him. Bennett's works have sold for $40,000, and are shown in both major and minor galleries. The father of four children continues to devote himself to both his painting and music with no indication that he will give up either any time soon. Bennett told the Saturday Evening Post, "The great jazz-blues singer Joe Williams told me once, 'What people don't realize about you is not that you want to sing. You have to sing.'"
by Rich Bowen
Tony Bennett's Career
Career began in New York City's Greenwich Village nightclubs at the start of the 1950s; appeared in Pearl Bailey's reviews at the Greenwich Village Inn; discovered by Bob Hope and brought to New York's Paramount Theater; landed Columbia recording contract, 1951; quickly rose to fame as one of America's best practioners of the torch song; early hits included "Because of You," "I Won't Cry Anymore," and "Blue Velvet"; recorded "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" in 1961; song became a worldwide hit; released over 80 albums on Columbia Records before departing label in 1971; started Improv Records; toured actively around the world; retained son, Danny, as manager in 1979; career picked up with appearances on television shows The Late Show with David Letterman, SCTV, and The Simpsons; re-signed by Columbia Records in 1985; released string of successful albums beginning with The Art of Excellence (1986); also an accomplished painter; works shown worldwide and have sold for as much as (U.S.) $40,000.
Tony Bennett's Awards
Received Grammy Awards in 1993 for Steppin Out, in 1992 for Perfectly Frank, and in 1962 for I Left My Heart In San Francisco.
- Selective Works
- Released on Columbia Records Treasure Chest of Songs, 1955.
- Tony, 1957.
- Blue Velvet, 1959.
- To My Wonderful One, 1960.
- I Left My Heart in San Francisco, 1963.
- I Wanna Be Around, 1963.
- 16 Most Requested Songs, 1986.
- Bennett/Berlin, 1987.
- Tony Bennett Jazz, 1987.
- The Movie Song Album, 1989.
- Astoria, 1990.
- Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, 1991.
- The Art of Excellence, 1992.
- Perfectly Frank, 1992.
- The Essence of Tony Bennett, 1993.
- Steppin' Out, 1993.
- In Person! With Count Basie and His Orchestra, 1994.
- Unplugged, 1994.
- Here's to the Ladies, 1995.
- Released on Roulette Records Count Basie Swings, Tony Bennett Sings, 1958.
- Bennett and Basie Strike Up the Band, 1961.
February 8, 2004: Bennett shared the Grammy Award for best traditional pop vocal album, for A Wonderful World with K. D. Lang. Source: 46th Grammy Awards, grammys.com/awards/grammy/46winners.aspx, February 8, 2004.
December 4, 2005: Bennett was named as a recipient of the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors in the Performing Arts. The award will be presented in a ceremony on December 4 that will be broadcast by CBS. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, September 7, 2005.
September 13, 2005: Bennett was named a member of the National Endowment for the Arts Class of 2006 Jazz Masters. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, September 13, 2005.
February 8, 2006: Bennett won a Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy Award for The Art of Romance. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, February 9, 2006.
- All Music Guide, edited by Michael Erlewine, Chris Woodstra, and Vladimir Bogdanov, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
- Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness Publishing, 1992.
- Periodicals Billboard, October 21, 1995.
- Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1994.
- Daily Mail (London), May 7, 1993.
- Good Housekeeping, April 1995.
- Independent (London), May 19, 1994.
- Irish Times (Dublin), May 14, 1993.
- Life, February 1995.
- Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1995.
- Maclean's, August 1, 1994.
- New York, August 22, 1994.
- New York Times, May 1, 1994.
- Observer (London), March 5, 1995.
- Orlando Sentinel, February 12, 1995.
- Salt Lake Tribune, May 4, 1994.
- Saturday Evening Post, January/February 1995.
- Washington Post, June 30, 1991.