The epitome of cool, Tony Bennett is second only to Frank Sinatra as an interpreter of classic jazz-inflected American song. Careful articulation, a sure sense of swing, and an air of restrained bemusement characterize his style. Originally popular in the late '50s, Tony Bennett enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in the early '90s.
His mother American, his father an Italian grocer, Benedetto worked as a singing waiter in his teens. After performing with the U.S. Army's entertainment corps in World War II and then appearing on Arthur Godfrey's talent show, he was discovered, under the stage name Joe Bari, while performing with Pearl Bailey in 1949. Bob Hope then enlisted him to open shows at New York's Paramount Theater and changed his name to Tony Bennett. In 1950, following an audition with Mitch Miller, he was signed to Columbia Records. His first hit, "Because of You" (#1, 1951) remained on the charts for 32 weeks. His next single, Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart," was the first notable pop cover of a country tune. Both featured the Percy Faith Orchestra, who provided the lush backdrop for most of the 24 Top 40 charters he earned before 1964. Among those hits were "Rags to Riches" (#1, 1953), "Stranger in Paradise" (#2, 1953), and "There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight" (#7, 1954). During that period, his Basie Swings, Bennett Sings served as a blueprint for later forays into jazz singing; in 1956 he formed an alliance with Ralph Sharon, the pianist and musical director who would become Bennett's lifelong collaborator. In 1962 Bennett sold out Carnegie Hall and recorded his first Grammy Award winner and subsequent trademark, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" (#19, 1962).
But Bennett was primarily an album artist. Given occasionally to the experimental —1957's The Beat of My Heart highlighted percussion as the primary instrumentation —he achieved equal aesthetic triumphs with the polished pop of The Movie Song Album (#18, 1966) and the straight-ahead jazz of When Lights Are Low (#79, 1964), a tribute to the King Cole Trio. Critics reserved special praise for his work with Bill Evans, a pianist whose elegant minimalism matched Bennett's own.
Yet after his '60s heyday came a fallow spell. Bennett continued to appear in concert, but from 1978 to 1985 he didn't record. In the late '70s he formed an independent label, which fared poorly commercially, and his contract with Columbia was not renewed. While other vocalists of the prerock era had expanded their repertoire to include songs by younger composers, Bennett adamantly refused such a manuever, continuing to record material by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and the like. And his career stalled. He concentrated instead on painting and began exhibiting in Paris, London, and New York.
In 1986 Bennett re-signed with Columbia. The Art of Excellence featured "Everybody Has the Blues," a duet with Ray Charles. Bennett/Berlin was a critically lauded set of Irving Berlin standards performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and George Benson. But it was with 1992's Perfectly Frank (#102), an homage to Bennett's favorite singer, Frank Sinatra, that his revival began in earnest. The album won a Grammy, as did Steppin' Out (#128, 1993), a collection of songs made famous by Fred Astaire. The singer's son, Danny Bennett, who had managed his father since 1979, capitalized on the newfound popularity, engineering a campaign that saw Bennett appearing in a cameo role on television's youth-oriented The Simpsons in 1991. Paul Shaffer, musical director for Late Night With David Letterman, became Bennett's champion; by appearing on that television show, the singer furthered his exposure to a younger demographic. With the release of Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, a four-disc retrospective, Bennett's stature was confirmed, while his hipness quotient intensified with his appearance, alongside Flea and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as a presenter at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards. In 1994 Tony Bennett —MTV Unplugged (#48), including duets with k.d. lang and Elvis Costello, gained Bennett two more Grammys, including Album of the Year.
In 1996 Rizzoli International published What My Heart Has Seen, a collection of Bennett's paintings. In addition to graduating from New York City's High School of Industrial Arts, Bennett has been tutored by artists such as John Barnicoat, Everett Kinstler, and Basil Baylin. His body of artwork includes portraits of idols such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. In 1998 he published his autobiography, The Good Life.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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