Born and raised in the Queens area of New York to an Italian-American family, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, better known professionally as “Tony Bennett” truly has nothing left to prove. He’s now 95 years old, fighting Alzheimer’s, but not allowing this disease to keep him from living.
Bennett started singing at a very young age. By age 10 he was already singing and performed at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in July 1936. He began getting paid for singing at age 13, performing as a singing waiter in several Italian restaurants around his native Queens. He also developed an aptitude for drawing, creating caricatures for his class at PS 141. He attended New York’s School of Industrial Art where he studied painting and music but had to drop out at age 16 to help support his family. He set his sights on a professional singing career, performing as a singing waiter, playing, and winning amateur nights all around the city, and finding local success at a Paramus, New Jersey nightclub.
Benedetto was drafted into the United States Army in November 1944, towards the end of WWII, even fighting on the front lines, which he described as “a front row seat in Hell.” During his time in combat, he narrowly escaped death several times. One very notable moment; Cpl. Tony Benedetto was part of a unit who captured Nazi SS troopers and liberated the prisoners of a concentration camp near Landsberg in Bavaria, south of Dachau. He later stated, “After seeing such horrors with my very eyes, it angers me that some people insist there were no concentration camps.”. The experience made him a pacifist post-war; he would later write, “Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn’t gone through one,” and later said, “It was a nightmare that’s permanent. I just said, ‘This is not life. This is not life.'”
Upon his discharge from the Army and return to the States in 1946, he returned to performing, honing his craft at American Theatre Wing in NYC. In 1949, Pearl Bailey recognized Tony’s talent and asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village. She had invited Bob Hope to the show, who decided to take Benedetto on the road with him, simplifying his name to “Tony Bennett.” In 1950, Bennett cut a demo of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and was signed to the major Columbia Records label by Mitch Miller.
After being warned not to imitate Frank Sinatra, Bennett began his career as a crooner of commercial pop tunes. The ensuing years would produce hit after hit with the Miller/Percy Faith combo working its magic. In the late 50s, Bennett would start leaning towards jazz, releasing The Beat of My Heart in 1957. It used well-known jazz musicians such as Herbie Mann and Nat Adderley, with a strong emphasis on percussion from the likes of Art Blakey, Jo Jones, and Latin star Candido Camero. Bennett also built up the quality, and the reputation of his nightclub act, following the path of Sinatra and other top standards singers of this era.
In 1962, Bennett released his version of I Left My Heart in San Francisco, an older but little-known song originally written for an opera singer. Initially, the song only reached 19th on the Billboard Hot 100, but it spent close to a year on various other charts and increased Bennett’s exposure. The song won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance for Bennett and would go on to become his signature song through the rest of his career.
Despite his immense success, the arrival of the British Invasion changed the scope of music dramatically, and he would struggle for the remainder of the 60s and throughout the 70s, changing labels multiple times. He even formed his own label, but lack of a distribution agreement with a major label would quickly end that dream. As the 70s neared the end of the decade, Bennett had no recording contract, no manager, and was not performing many concerts outside of Las Vegas. He had also developed a cocaine addiction, was living beyond his means, and had the IRS trying to seize his Los Angeles home. He turned to his sons, Danny and Dae for guidance.
Danny Bennett, an aspiring musician himself, had also come to a realization. The band Danny and his brother had started, Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends, had floundered and Danny’s musical abilities were limited. However, he had discovered during this time that he did have a head for business. His father, on the other hand, had tremendous musical talent, but was having trouble sustaining a career from it and had little financial sense. Danny signed on as his father’s manager. Danny got his father’s expenses under control, moved him back to New York, and began booking him in colleges and small theaters to move away from a “Vegas” image. After some effort, a successful plan to pay back the IRS debt was put into place. The singer had also reunited with Ralph Sharon as his pianist and musical director (and would remain with him until Sharon’s retirement in 2002). By 1986, Tony Bennett was re-signed to Columbia Records, this time with creative control, and released The Art of Excellence.
Danny also felt that younger audiences would respond to Bennett’s music if exposed to it, and he began booking his father on the younger, hipper late-night shows. The plan worked brilliantly, and as Tony later stated, “I realized that young people had never heard those songs. Cole Porter, Gershwin – they were like, ‘Who wrote that?’ To them, it was different. If you’re different, you stand out.” He appeared on MTV Video awards, and as The New York Times said, “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises.” His 1994 MTV Unplugged album went platinum, winning him both Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance and the coveted Album of the Year Grammy.
Since his comeback, Bennett has financially prospered; by 1999, his assets were worth $15 to 20 million. He said: “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.” He had no intention of retiring, saying in reference to masters such as Pablo Picasso, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire: “right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older.”
Bennett has also had great success as a painter, done under his real name of Anthony Benedetto or just Benedetto. He followed up his childhood interest with professional training, work, and museum visits throughout his life. He sketches or paints every day, often of views out of hotel windows when he is on tour and has exhibited his work in numerous galleries around the world.
Unfortunately, Bennett didn’t foresee illness entering the picture. In a most heartbreaking twist of fate, Tony Bennett has Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of age-related dementia. While he is fairly asymptomatic aside from some short-term memory loss, it’s still a progressive and unpredictable bitch of a disease.
On August 12, 2021, a week after his 95th birthday and performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Bennett’s retirement from concerts was announced by his son and manager Danny Bennett. Danny stated that though his father remained a capable singer, he was becoming physically frail and risked a major fall if he continued touring. His final album Love for Sale, another collaborative record with Lady Gaga, will be released on October 1, 2021.
Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]