Tony Bennett has become one of the most recognizable jazz singers of all time due to both his universally loved, highly emotional singing style and his perseverance for more than half a century. Since his first hit in the early ‘50s, Bennett has been a major musical force every decade after.
Anthony Dominick Benedetto, which he would later shorten to Tony Bennett, was born in Queens, New York in 1926. He came from a poor Italian family that struggled through the Depression, even more so after his father died in 1936. But he also came from a family of art lovers, who fostered in Bennett a love of performing. At age 10, he performed at the opening of the Triborough Bridge. Three years later, he worked as a singing waiter in local Italian restaurants. He briefly attended the School of Industrial Art to study music and painting, but had to drop out when he was 16 in order to support his family.
In 1944, Bennett was drafted by the Army to serve in World War II. After fighting in France and Germany, he returned to the United States and used the GI Bill to further his passion for music. He enrolled in the American Theatre Wing and received classical training in the bel canto style. One of the biggest things Bennett learned from his time here, though, was the notion that a singer should look to other instrumentalists in the band for style and phrasing as a way to better improvise and harmonize. Always flawlessly in sync with his band, this would become Bennett’s signature.
In 1949, Bob Hope caught sight of Bennett and invited him on tour. Hope also suggested he shorten his name to Tony Bennett. In 1950, he was signed to Columbia Records. His first big hit was “Because of You,” recorded on year later. It stayed at the top of the pop charts for ten weeks and sold more than a million copies. Immediately, comparisons were made between him and Sinatra, but then Bennett released a rendition of Hank Williams’ country song “Cold, Cold Heart.” From then on, it was clear he had his own style. Bennett would continue to score a slew of hits throughout the ‘50s. In the meantime, he became a teen idol of sorts, selling out venues to screaming fans across the country. In 1956, he even had a short-lived variety show on NBC.
Bennett started making the transition to jazz in the late ‘50s. Under the direction of Chuck Wayne, he began experimenting with a more mature sound. 1955’s Cloud 7 featured longform jazz tunes, instead of his usual pop singles. The height of Bennett’s jazz sound would be 1957’s The Beat of My Heart inspired by the likes of Art Blakey and Chicago Hamilton. This would lead to a number of performances with the Count Basie Orchestra, making him the first male singer to perform with the famed jazz band.
By this point, Bennett was considered both a critical and commercial success -- both a “serious” artist and a pop artist. In 1962, he organized an all-star concert at Carnegie Hall featuring Al Cohn, Kenny Burrell, Candido, and the Ralph Sharon Trio. That same year, he released what would become his signature hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But things became rocky in the mid-’60s with the decline in popularity of jazz. His singles fell on the charts, and a poor performance in the 1966 film The Oscar tarnished his reputation even more. Bennett is better known during this time period for championing civil rights. He was a vocal proponent of the Civil Right Movement and participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The ‘70s were a rough time for Bennett. Struggling with drug addiction and artistic differences with his label, he had a hard time releasing music or even booking gigs. But with the help of his son, Bennett eventually made a comeback in 1986. He signed with Columbia Records again, and released The Art of Excellence, his first chart topper in more than ten years.
Since then, Bennett has been a major force on the pop music scene. He found a way to connect with young audiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s -- mostly through appearances on MTV and The Simpsons -- but, now with more creative control than ever, also stayed true to his original sound. He’s continues to do the same now. Some of his most recent, most notable duets include a successful string of songs with Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. Over the course of his career, Bennett has won multiple Grammys (including one for the 1995 live album MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett), and two Emmys. He’s also an American Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree.
From teen idol to jazz master, Bennett has made his mark on American music. His smooth, resonant voice makes him well-suited for a variety of genres, and you can see the breadth of his repertoire in his discography.