Tony Bennett, one of the most beloved singers of all time, has died at 96. The last of the great mid-century crooners, Bennett was regarded as one of the all-time best interpreters of the Great American Songbook: his friend and peer Frank Sinatra regarded him as “the best singer in the business.”
His renditions of jazz standards made him a beloved act across his long career, and he also popularized songs like “Rags to Riches” and his signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
Bennett’s death was confirmed to AP by his publicist Sylvia Weiner, who said he died in his hometown of New York. Bennett had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease since 2016.
Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926, in Astoria, Queens. His father passed away when he was 10, and his mother, a seamstress, raised three children on her own.
Idolizing jazz legend Louis Armstrong, Tony developed an interest in music. After dropping out of high school to support his family by working in an Italian restaurant, and soon got his start as a singing waiter.
“I loved that time of my life, and I honestly feel that, if I hadn’t made it professionally, I would be perfectly happy going back to being a singing waiter,” Bennett recalled to the San Diego Tribune. “It was a great training ground, as I learned so many songs from the cooks in the kitchen when we would get requests where we didn’t know the song or all the lyrics.”
His music career went on hold during World War II, when Bennett served in the US Army as an infantry rifleman, but he did entertain troops as part of a band unit.
Returning to civilian life, Bennett studied singing at the American Theatre Wing. In 1950, he was signed to Columbia Records, and began a professional career as a a pop crooner. He had his first number one hit in 1953 with “Rags to Riches,” kicking off a legendary career.
He continued to record successful records and became a major nightclub performer, a contemporary of artists like Frank Sinatra.
In 1962, he recorded what has become his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco. The recording won him the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and was featured on a platinum-selling album of the same name.
Continued popularity over the decades
Though the type of music Tony Bennett performed in the ’50s and ’60s went “out of style” in favor of genres like rock and roll, Bennett managed to remain popular with younger generations, even while still performing the old standards.
After years of downturn, Bennett made a big comeback in the 1990s by appealing to the “MTV generation.” He made numerous appearances on late night talk shows and on MTV, including his own special on MTV Unplugged. Not only did he appeal to a new demographic, he won the prestigious Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
He continued to perform sold-out concerts, record best-selling albums and win numerous awards. Some of his biggest successes were collaborations with younger music stars: his 2006 album Duets: An American Classic, featuring duets with Elton John, Billy Joel, Celine Dion and Bono, became his best selling album and won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
Collaboration with Lady Gaga
He also had major success with an unexpected collaborator: pop megastar Lady Gaga.
The two toured together and released their first album of pop standard duets, Cheek to Cheek, in 2014. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, and Bennett earned the world record as the oldest person to reach #1 on the charts with a new album.
Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, progressive neurological disease associated with dementia and memory loss, in 2016. Despite this, he kept performing for as long as he could.
“He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do,” Gayatri Devi, M.D., the neurologist who diagnosed Bennett, told AARP. “He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder.”
At 95, he released a final album, Love For Sale, another collaboration with Lady Gaga that was a tribute to Cole Porter. The duo also performed two concerts at the iconic Radio City Music Hall in New York, One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, which was billed as his final performance; he subsequently announced his retirement.
Across his seven-decade career, Bennett released over 70 albums and sold more than 50 million albums. His awards include 20 Grammy Awards.
Rest in peace to the great Tony Bennett, one of the greatest singers of all time — his beautiful, timeless recordings will live on forever.
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