Tribute to Tony Bennett

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Tony Bennett passed away yesterday at the age of 96. This is a tribute to the man, the legend.

Frank Sinatra once said, as quoted in 1965 by Life Magazine, ” For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business.”

Duke Ellington in his autobiography, “Music is my Mistress” said about Tony Bennett, “To attend a Tony Bennett concert is to find yourself in the presence of a performer who exudes a rough-hewn natural elegance, devoid of airs… He can still end a song like “Fly me to the Moon” or “How Do you Keep the Music Playing?” with an old-fashioned, quasi-operatic crescendo but he makes these corny triumphal endings stick in your heart.”

Anthony Dominick Benedetto, known professionally as Tony Bennett, was an American singer. Bennett amassed many accolades, including 20 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Prime time Emmy Awards.

Born August 3, 1926 in Long Island City, NY,NY Tony Bennett was a saloon singer that produced some of the most notable concerts and collaborations in the history of pop culture. In the last ten years alone he has sold over ten million records. The essence of his longevity and high artistic achievement was his steadfast approach to song and style.

Tony Bennett quite simply was a legend who served during the Second World War and then develped a career that spanned over a half century.

His father, Giovanni “John” Benedetto, was a grocer, his mother, Anna Maria (Suraci), was a seamstrress, and his uncle was a tap dancer. His parents were both from poor farming families in Clabria, Italy.

Young Tony gave a singing performance at the opening of the Tribourough Bridge at the age of 10. He studied music and painting at the New York High School of Industrial Arts but dropped out at the age of 16. He had to support his family and he performed as a singing waiter in Italian restaurants.

During the Second World War, Tony Bennett was drafted in the US army. He served on the front lines until April 1945  and was  involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp at Landsberg, Germany.

After World Was II he sang with the army military band under the stage name “Joe Bari” until his discharge in 1946. He returned to the US and studied the Bel Canto singing discipline at the American Theater Wing on the GI Bill. He continued singing while waiting tables at New York restuarants.

At the beginning of his career he drew from such influences as Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby among others. He eventually created his own style of singing integrating a Jazz-style phrasing while sometimes imitating instrumental solos with his own unique voice.

In 1949 Bennett was invited on a concert tour by Bob Hope who suggested he use the stage name of Tony Bennett. Then, in 1950 he signed a record deal with Columbia Records which led to his first big hit, “Because of You”, orchestrated by Mitch Miller with orchestration by Percy Faith.

That record sold over a million copies, reaching #1 in 1951 on the pop charts. His other #1 hits included “Blue Velvet”, “Rags to Riches”. and “Stranger in Paradise” from 1952 to 1954. Bennett was able to do five to seven shows a day in New York City singing to crowds of screaming teenagers.

In 1956 he hosted “The Tony Bennett Show” which replaced “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall”. After collaborations with Count Basie producing two notable albums, “Chicago”, and “Jeepers Creepers”, he was on to Carnegie Hall.

In June of 1962 at Carnegie Hall Tony Bennett featured 44 songs accompanied by an all-star band. That year was especially notable as that was the year he launched what was to become his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”

As life would have it Tony was offered many obstacles during the late 1960’s and 1970’s with a pop culture that changed from saloon singers to the Beatles.

Divorces, drug addiction, a failing career, dropped by Columbia Records, brought him to the breaking point.  In the late seventies a drug overdose signaled a desperate time for Tony, in which case he called  for help from his son, Danny Bennett. Danny signed on as his father’s manager which turned out to be the right move, and his fortunes eventually changed.

Tony Bennett rejuvenated his career with the help of his son. He brought back his original style (with tuxedo) while creating “The Great American Songbook.” In the 80’s he staged a strong comeback while re-signing with Columbia Records. It was during that time he received a Grammy, his first since 1962.

He has sold over 50 million albums worldwide, was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997 while that same year published an autobiography, “The Good Life” which recieved a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP in 2002. A recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor in December of 2005 was closely followed by being honored by the United Nations with its Citizen of the World award. Tony Bennett will always be remembered as an international treasure.

Nancy and I saw Tony Bennett a few years ago at the Wynn theatre in Las Vegas. I wanted to make sure we saw this iconic performer before it was too late. His repertoire included “I Left My heart in San Francisco” and ended with an A cappella performance of “Fly Me to the Moon”. I will never forget that concert and the love in that concert hall for a true legend that brought so much joy to so many for so long.