A popular singer of standard and jazz music, Bennett has entertained generations of listeners with his easy, down-to-earth style since the 1940’s.
Born: August 13, 1926; Queens, New York
Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, the son of Italian immigrants Giovanni and Anna Benedetto. Bennett’s father, a grocer, died when he was ten years old, and his mother, Anna, took a job as a seamstress to support her children. Bennett attended New York City’s School of Industrial Art (now known as the High School of Art and Design), where he trained as a painter. He dropped out of school at sixteen to help support his family by working a series of jobs, including as an elevator operator and a copyboy for the Associated Press. He did not last long at these jobs, and they only reinforced his desire to become a professional singer. He gave himself the stage name of Joe Bari and did whatever he could to start his career. In 1944, at eighteen, Bennett was drafted into the Army and served in the infantry until the Germans surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II.
He found combat difficult and was glad to be reassigned to a division that provided entertainment for the troops. He performed with many talented musicians, singers, and arrangers, some of whom helped Bennett later in his career. Bennett returned home from the military in 1946 determined to make it as a singer. He used his G.I. Bill benefits to go back to school, attending the American Theatre Wing. In 1952 Bennett married a young art student from Ohio named Patricia Beech. Together they had two sons, D’Andrea (Danny) and Daegal (Dae). The marriage suffered from Bennett’s spending too much time on the road, and they separated in 1965. The divorce was made final in 1971. While portraying the role of Hymie Kelly in the movie The Oscar in 1965, Bennett met Sandra Grant. Eventually they married and had two daughters, Joanna and Antonia. He moved the family to Hollywood, but the lifestyle began to takes its toll. He and Sandra fell behind in taxes, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) prepared to take away their home. Bennett’s mother died, his own record label folded, and Bennett became depressed.
A near-fatal drug overdose propelled him to reexamine his life and career. He called his sons, Danny and Dae, for help. In their twenties and familiar with the business side of the music industry, they came to Bennett’s aid, Danny taking over as his manager. Unfortunately, Bennett and Sandra divorced. This was a turning point for Bennett professionally and personally. With his second marriage over, he moved back to New York and revived his singing career. In addition to his musical success, Bennett gained acclaim as an artist. Painting under his birth name of Anthony Benedetto, he exhibited his works in art galleries across the country. He published an art book featuring many of his paintings, Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen (1996). The Music Bennett’s early years were spent listening to such greats as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and Maurice Chevalier. From these talented artists he learned a relaxed attitude that would appeal to every audience. At thirteen he developed a love for jazz, and at sixteen he dropped out of school to help support his family. He tried several jobs but ended up working as a singing waiter in an Italian restaurant, where he learned the standard songs from the other waiters and deduced what it took to be a performer.
During World War II Bennett served in the infantry, then was transferred to the 255th Regiment Band and the 314th Army Special Services Band of the European Theater, traveling around Germany entertaining the troops, often in the trenches. This experience provided Bennett with a great deal of artistic freedom since he could sing any song in any style, such as the new bebop. Many of the songs he performed in Germany–such as “Body and Soul” and “Sunny Side of the Street”–remained part of his repertoire for years. After returning from the war, Bennett spent his days knocking on the doors of booking agents, club owners, and promoters. He received many rejections, which was a shock after the success he had experienced in the Army. At night he frequented clubs, singing for free and hoping someone would hear him. Performers such as Milton Berle and Jan Murray helped by arranging for him to sing when agents were in the audience. “Boulevard of Dreams.” Bennett’s first demonstration disc featured “Crazy Rhythm” and “Boulevard of Dreams.”
The recording was not a huge success, but it attracted the attention of entertainment columnist Walter Winchell and singer Frank Sinatra. Mitch Miller of Columbia Records also found the disc interesting and offered Bennett a contract. Getting signed with a label was a positive step in Bennett’s career. “Boulevard of Dreams” became his first Top 10 hit. The songs recorded after “Boulevard of Dreams” were not as successful, and he was told that if he did not get a hit soon he would be dropped from the label. In 1951 he recorded “Because of You.” It was not aired immediately on the radio, but it was a popular jukebox choice. Soon listeners from all over the country were calling their radio stations requesting the song. It was Bennett’s first number one hit on the Billboard pop chart, ultimately selling a million copies. It stayed on the chart for thirty-two weeks, ten at number one. “Cold, Cold Heart.” Bennett’s second number one hit was “Cold, Cold Heart,” written by country singer Hank Williams.
This was the first time a country song had crossed over to the Top 40 mainstream chart before becoming an international hit. Bennett was invited to perform it on the Grand Ol’ Opry television show to pay tribute to Williams after his death. Cloud 7. By 1955 Bennett had become dissatisfied with trying to beat the other pop singers for the number-one spot on the charts. He wanted to record a long-playing disc of jazz songs. Miller initially said no, but after the success of “Cold, Cold Heart,” he finally agreed. Cloud 7 was one of the first concept albums and one of Columbia’s first twelve-inch long-playing discs. It featured jazz and classical inspiration, such as “My Reverie,” based on classical composer Claude Debussy’s Reverie. Cloud 7 was not a smash hit, but it proved that Bennett was capable of doing something beyond singles and that he was ready for major changes in his career. Mr. Broadway. The producers of the Broadway play Kismet asked Bennett to record “Stranger in Paradise” as a way to promote the play during a newspaper strike.
It worked so well that several years later he was asked to record “Just in Time” from Bells Are Ringing. He eventually recorded enough songs for his 1962 album release Mr. Broadway. “In the Middle of an Island.” At first Bennett refused to record “In the Middle of an Island,” which he did not like. He and Miller argued about it, but Bennett finally gave in, managing to get through it in one take. Surprisingly, the song made the Top 10. Although the experience reinforced Bennett’s belief that he should sing only songs that he liked in order to give the best he had to give to his listeners, giving in to Miller allowed him the freedom to record something more ambitious. The Beat of My Heart. Bennett’s next project was a compilation of standard songs using different kinds of rhythm, performed by all the great drummers Bennett could find. The Beat of My Heart attracted a whole new audience of jazz fans. With the success of the album, Bennett was allowed to make albums regularly. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” While preparing for his first concert in the city of San Francisco, Bennett’s piano player, Ralph Sharon, handed him a song written by two unknown songwriters. Bennett liked the tune immediately, and so did audiences all over the country. It quickly became his signature song. The album of the same name was a Top 5 hit, and in 1962 the single won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal performance. Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today. In 1967 rock and roll became the mainstay of most record labels. Columbia was no different and embraced the new sound, insisting all their artists record rock-and-roll tunes. Once again Bennett protested. He could not understand why he should sing songs that were definitely not his style. Bennett gave in again and recorded Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today. He was glad that his success in the 1950’s had already established his career. Bennett left Columbia in 1972 and signed with Polygram Records. His albums were released on the Philips label in England and on MGM/Verve in America.
Two years later he started Tobill Enterprises and the record label Improve with Bill Hassett. Bennett produced four albums using different styles, something he would never have been able to do with a major label. The venture proved to be more difficult than they had expected, and it folded. The Art of Excellence. Bennett’s career began to slip in the 1970’s. He was in debt from closing the record company and was having trouble with the IRS. He had been performing in Las Vegas but did not want to be labeled a Vegas act. He moved back to New York, and with Danny’s help he refocused his career on a younger generation of music fans by booking shows at colleges and small theaters. The response was better than they had expected, without Bennett having to change his style of singing, his songs, or his trademark tuxedo. He re-signed with Columbia Records and recorded his first album with the label in fourteen years. The Art of Excellence was created with state-of-the-art digital equipment. A great album, it also attracted the attention of high-tech enthusiasts. MTV Generation. Bennett and his son found another way to attract the attention of younger listeners.
They convinced Columbia that he should do an MTV video. “Steppin’ Out” was shot in black and white and featured all styles of dance with visual editing cut on the beat. Response to the video was so positive that Bennett was asked to co-present an award at that year’s MTV Video Awards, and in 1994 he was invited to appear on MTV Unplugged. An album of the evening’s performance became one of the top sellers of his career. With guest appearances by K. D. Lang and Elvis Costello, it won Grammy’s Album of the Year in 1995. Musical Legacy By studying masterful entertainers, Bennett learned how to attract and maintain the public’s interest. Keeping great songs alive and providing quality entertainment for all ages are significant parts of his legacy. As a representative of a beloved line of American vocalists, such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Andy Williams, Bennett has preserved their art for a twenty-first century audience who revere him for his music and his enduring youthfulness.