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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Tony Bennett!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Tony Bennett in one of his recent shows
Tony Bennett in one of his recent shows. Photo credit:

On August 3, 1926, Tony Bennett was born. Bennett began his musical career 70 years ago as a pop star, later becoming one of the finest singers of standards from the Great American Songbook.

Bennett showed his musical talent early. He was singing at local public events by the age of 10, and working as a singing waiter at 13. He dropped out of school at 16 to help support his family.

In 1944, Bennett was drafted into the United States Army. He spent the last few months of World War II with what he called a “front-row seat in hell,” fighting with the infantry in France and Germany. After the war ended, he remained in Germany as part of the American occupying force and was assigned to sing with a Special Services Band that entertained American troops.

He returned to New York after being discharged in 1946 and studied music on the GI Bill. He made his first records in 1949. They didn’t sell very well but got enough attention that Pearl Bailey asked him to open for her New York club act. Bob Hope was in the audience one night and hired Bennett to be part of his touring show. It was Hope who suggested that Tony adopt “Bennett” as a stage name; he’d been performing under his birth name, Benedetto.

In 1950, Bennett was signed by Columbia Records, where he had great success working with producer Mitch Miller and arranger Percy Faith. Among his first records was “Because of You,” which spent ten weeks at #1 in 1951. By 1953, he’d topped the charts twice more, with “Rags to Riches” and a cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Country music rarely crossed over to pop audiences in the early 1950s, so Bennett’s version of the song was the first time many listeners had heard it.

In 1953, the producers of an upcoming Broadway musical were looking for creative ways to promote their show during a New York newspaper strike. They asked Bennett to record one of the songs from the show. “Stranger in Paradise” was another hit record; Kismet ran for 16 months; and Bennett’s focus shifted quickly away from new pop songs. By 1955, when he released his second album, Cloud 7, he was singing mostly standards from the 1930s and 1940s.

Cloud 7
Bennett, Tony

It was arguably exactly the wrong time to make that shift. The mid-1950s was the beginning of the rock’n’roll era, and traditional pop singers were seeing their careers fade rapidly Bennett held up better on the pop charts than many of his contemporaries, reaching the top ten in 1957 with In the Middle of an Island” and the top twenty as late as 1963 with “The Good Life.”

And in 1962, Bennett recorded the song that became his signature: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The song was a decade old, and there were several singers who performed it regularly, but Bennett’s was the first major recording of the song. Bennett discovered the song through his longtime pianist and arranger, Ralph Sharon, who was a friend of the songwriters. Bennett’s record won the Grammy for Record of the Year, and in 1984, San Francisco adopted the song as an official anthem.

When the British Invasion his pop music in 1964, Bennett’s radio career moved almost entirely to what were then called “easy listening” stations—in the early 70s, they rebranded themselves as “adult contemporary”—and he continued to have great success there for another decade.

In 1965, Ralph Sharon left Bennett for a solo career, and Clive Davis, who was now in charge at Columbia, urged Bennett to return to contemporary pop. Bennett resisted, but Davis ultimately won the battle, and the results were disappointing. Bennett’s 1970 album, Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, featured songs by Lennon & McCartney, Jimmy Webb, and Stevie Wonder, and Bennett did not enjoy recording the album. Davis later recalled that Bennett was so unenthusiastic that he actually vomited before recording some of the songs.

Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!
Bennett, Tony

By 1972, Bennett had left Columbia, and in 1975, he formed his own label, Improv Records. He returned to the standards that he loved and recorded two well-received albums with pianist Bill Evans, but the label struggled financially and folded in 1977.

The next decade was difficult. Bennett had no recording contract; he was struggling with drug addiction, and he’d gotten himself into some serious tax problems with the IRS. After almost dying of an overdose in 1979, Bennett turned to his sons for help, and Danny Bennett took over as his father’s new manager.

Danny got his father’s finances under control, reunited him with Ralph Sharon, and signed a new contract with Columbia, this time giving Bennett creative control over his records. Tony Bennett returned to recording in 1986 with The Art of Excellence.

In the 1990s, Danny orchestrated a surprising comeback for his father through the counterintuitive strategy of introducing him to younger audiences. Bennett began to perform regularly on David Letterman and Conan O’Brien’s late-night shows and performed at a series of charity concerts organized by alternative rock radio stations. “Young people had never heard those songs,” Bennett said. “They were like, ‘Who wrote that?’ To them it was different. If you’re different, you stand out.”

Bennett’s albums in the 90s were mostly themed albums, tributes to some of his favorite artists—Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra. In 1993, he made a music video for “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” which was popular enough at MTV that Bennett was invited to do an MTV Unplugged concert in 1994. He made almost no attempt to pander to the younger audience, singing his usual standards with the backing of the Ralph Sharon Trio. There were guest appearances by Elvis Costello and k. d. lang, but they were there to sing his music, his way. The album of the concert won the Album of the Year Grammy Award.

In the 21st century, Bennett has focused largely on duets. Three albums of duets paired him with a who’s who of contemporary pop singers—Sheryl Crow, John Legend, Amy Winehouse, Tim McGraw—and a 2012 album featured an equally stellar assortment of Latin pop singers, from Juan Luis Guerra to Thalia.

Cheek To Cheek

Bennett recorded full albums with k. d. lang in 2002 and Lady Gaga in 2014; the Gaga album, Cheek to Cheek, went to #1 on the album chart, making Bennett the oldest artist ever to do so. His most recent album, Love Is Here to Stay, is an all-Gershwin album recorded with Diana Krall, and it includes the song “Fascinating Rhythm,” which Bennett first recorded in 1949. The Guinness Book of Records recognized that gap of almost 69 years as the longest gap between recordings of the same song by any artist.

Bennett has received twenty Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, and was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 2005. Most of his albums are available at Freegal or Hoopla; The Essential Tony Bennett is a good overview of his career and includes all of the individual songs not otherwise linked in this post.