Sources returnpage

Bennett, Tony

Category: Performer

 

Anthony Dominick Benedetto (born August 3, 1926), known professionally as Tony Bennett, is an American singer of traditional pop standards, big band, show tunes, and jazz.

He is also a painter, having created works under the name Anthony Benedetto that are on permanent public display in several institutions; we have used some of his paintings to illustrate this entry.

Bennett has released over 70 albums during his career, almost all for Columbia Records. The biggest selling of these in the U.S. have been I Left My Heart in San Francisco, MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett, and Duets: An American Classic, all of which went platinum for shipping one million copies. Eight other albums of his have gone gold in the U.S., including several compilations. Bennett has also charted over 30 singles during his career, with his biggest hits all occurring during the early 1950s.  He had his first number-one popular song with "Because of You" in 1951.

Bennett staged a comeback in the late 1980s and 1990s, putting out gold record albums again and expanding his reach to the MTV Generation while keeping his musical style intact. He remains a popular and critically praised recording artist and concert performer in the 2010s and has been given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street.  He has won 19 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented in 2001) and two Emmy Awards, and was named an NEA Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree. Bennett has sold over 50 million records worldwide.

Prince Harry, Lady Gaga, after Bennett and Lady Gaga's performance as
part of the Cheek to Cheek Tour

Tony is till singing.  In 1998 he made an unlikely but successful appearance at a mud-soaked Glastonbury in an immaculate suit and tie.  In 2014, Bennett made a surprise cameo appearance on stage with Lady Gaga. The performance took place days before the release of the two stars' Grammy-winning album, Cheek to Cheek, which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, extending the 88-year-old Bennett's record for the oldest artist to do so. On September 25, 2015, he released an album composed by Jerome Kern, featuring Bill Charlap on piano, called The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern.   

Why is he on the site?  Because he had the beginnings of a near death experience in 1979. The observation provides the details.

The NDE

 

By the late 1970s, Bennett and his career was ailing. He had no record label, no manager, and he was performing almost exclusively in Vegas. Living in Los Angeles, he had a drug habit [mostly cocaine], a disintegrating marriage, and mounting debts.

Bennett described what led to his NDE in 1979.  “. …. That night, in frustration I overindulged and quickly realized I was in trouble. I tried to calm myself down by taking a hot bath, but I must have passed out. And I experienced what some call a near-death experience”.  

His then wife Sandra saved him from both drowning and dying from an overdose.  Although the experience when one reads the description is very short, because he was saved before it became more serious, the after effects were quite profound.  We have provided the observation in full but again it is the after effects that appear to be of more interest.

The Good Life: The Autobiography Of Tony Bennett

It took me a couple of weeks to get my feet back on the ground.  I knew I had to make major changes in my life.  It was 1979 and my sons Danny and Daegel were now 25 and 24, respectively.  I remembered the clearheaded suggestions Danny had given me during the Improv negotiations and how he was always so defensive anytime there was a wise guy hanging around.  I called my boys in New York and asked them to come out to talk things over and see if they could lend me a hand.


 

Bennett had married Ohio art student and jazz fan Patricia Beech, on February 12, 1952 and they had had two sons, D'Andrea (Danny, born 1954) and Daegal (Dae, born 1955). 

Bennett and his wife Patricia separated in 1965, their marriage a victim of Bennett's spending too much time on the road, among other factors. In 1969, Patricia had sued him for divorce on grounds of adultery. In 1971, their divorce became official.

Bennett had become involved with aspiring actress Sandra Grant while filming The Oscar in 1965; the couple lived together for several years, and on December 29, 1971, they had married in New York. They had two daughters, Joanna (born 1970) and Antonia (born 1974), and had moved to Los Angeles.  Thus at the time of the NDE, Bennett was married to Sandra, but was still very close to his sons from his former marriage.

His two sons immediately responded and Danny helped him sort out his finances, eventually becoming his manager.  Danny managed to work out that the road gigs were unprofitable because the road expenses ate up any revenue.  He worked out a payment plan with the IRS and he put the budget into action.

Bennett and his wife plays with Dandrea

The Good Life: The Autobiography Of Tony Bennett

The hard part was getting Sandra to comply.  I had to go back on the road that week and I called her and said ‘This is the way it’s going to have to be.  It’s the only way we can save the house’.  One week later she served me with divorce papers.  … Another chapter in my life had come to an end…. I left the house in Beverly Hills and found a nice one bedroom apartment on West 55th street back in Manhattan…..The minute I got back to a life style I was comfortable with, I never wanted to get high again.


So, the NDE achieved far more than making him into some kind of inspired spiritual athlete, it actually served to sort out a number of problems he had avoided solving.  The final solution came when he met Susan, his current wife.

The Good Life: The Autobiography Of Tony Bennett

Along with my career straightening out, my personal life took a major change for the better.  I guess because I’ve been a perpetual optimist all my life, forging ahead and willing myself to gravitate to the good things, the negativity started to evaporate.  It was a lucky day for me when I became acquainted with a beautiful lady - Susan Crow.  She’s happy, thoughtful, truthful, intelligent and she comes from a terrific family.  She’s helped me balance my life, think straight and become a healthy person.  She has a special way about her that I’ve never found in anyone else.


Susan Crow was a New York City schoolteacher when Bennett met her and “is usually reported as being 33 years his junior, although a few sources indicate the gap is 40 years.”  As a teenager, Crow had been the head of the Bay Area fan club for Bennett.  On June 21, 2007, Bennett married Crow in a private civil ceremony in New York.

 

Since his NDE and marriage to Susan, Bennett frequently donates his time to charitable causes, to the extent that he is sometimes nicknamed "Tony Benefit". In April 2002, he joined Michael Jackson, Chris Tucker and former President Bill Clinton in a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at New York's Apollo Theater.

Bennett and Crow founded Exploring the Arts, a charitable organization dedicated to creating, promoting, and supporting arts education. At the same time they founded (and named after Bennett's friend) the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a public high school dedicated to teaching the performing arts, which opened in 2001.

Bennett's work for the Civil Rights Movement, including his participation in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, later earned him induction into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta.   Years later he would continue this commitment by refusing to perform in apartheid South Africa.  In 2006, he received the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Humanitarian Award.

In February 2010, Bennett was one of over 70 artists singing on "We Are the World 25 for Haiti", a charity single in aid of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

In September 2011, Bennett appeared on The Howard Stern Show and named American military actions in the Middle East as the root cause of the September 11 attacks.  He said

" My life experiences, ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to marching with Martin Luther King, made me a life-long humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior."

Danny Bennett continues to be Tony's manager while Dae Bennett is a recording engineer who has worked on a number of Tony's projects and who has opened Bennett Studios in Englewood, New Jersey.

Life and career

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926, in Astoria, Queens, New York, to grocer John Benedetto and seamstress Anna Suraci. In 1906, John had emigrated from Podàrgoni, a rural eastern district of the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria. Anna had been born in the U.S. shortly after her parents also emigrated from the Calabria region in 1899. Other relatives came over as well as part of the mass migration of Italians to America. Tony grew up with an older sister, Mary, and an older brother, John Jr. With a father who was ailing and unable to work, the children grew up in poverty. John Sr. instilled in his son a love of art and literature and a compassion for human suffering, but died when Tony was 10 years old. The experience of growing up in the Great Depression and a distaste for the effects of the Hoover Administration “would make the child a lifelong Democrat.”

 

Tony’s Uncle Dick was a tap dancer in vaudeville, giving him an early window into show business, and his Uncle Frank was the Queens borough library commissioner. By age 10 he was already singing, and performing. He began singing for money at age 13, performing as a singing waiter in several Italian restaurants around his native Queens.

He attended New York's School of Industrial Art where he studied painting and music. But he dropped out at age 16 to help support his family. He worked as a copy boy and runner for the Associated Press in Manhattan and in several other low-skilled, low-paying jobs. However, he mostly set his sights on a professional singing career, returning to performing as a singing waiter, playing and winning amateur nights all around the city, and having a successful engagement at a Paramus, New Jersey, nightclub.

Benedetto was drafted into the United States Army in November 1944, during the final stages of World War II. He did basic training at Fort Dix and Fort Robinson as part of becoming an infantry rifleman.  As March 1945 began, he joined the front line and what he would later describe as a "front-row seat in hell."  As the German Army was pushed back to its homeland, Benedetto and his company saw bitter fighting in cold winter conditions.  During his time in combat, Benedetto narrowly escaped death several times. The experience made him a pacifist; he would later write, "Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn't gone through one."

 

Upon his discharge from the Army and return to the States in 1946, Benedetto studied at the American Theatre Wing on the GI Bill. He was taught the bel canto singing discipline, which would keep his voice in good shape for his entire career.  In concert Bennett often makes a point of singing one song (usually "Fly Me to the Moon") without any microphone or amplification, demonstrating his skills at vocal projection

His break came when in 1949, Pearl Bailey recognized Benedetto's talent and asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village. She had invited Bob Hope to the show and Hope decided to take Benedetto on the road with him, simplifying his name to Tony Bennett. In 1950, Bennett cut a demo of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and was signed to the major Columbia Records label by Mitch Miller.

 

After a series of hits, in 1953 the producers of the upcoming Broadway musical Kismet had Bennett record "Stranger in Paradise" as a way of promoting the show during a New York newspaper strike. The song reached the top, the show was a hit, and Bennett began a long practice of recording show tunes. "Stranger in Paradise" was also a number-one hit in the United Kingdom a year and a half later and started Bennett's career as an international artist.

Once the rock and roll era began in 1955, the dynamic of the music industry changed and it became harder and harder for existing singers to do well commercially. Nevertheless, Bennett continued to enjoy success, placing eight songs in the Billboard Top 40 during the latter part of the 1950s.

For a month in August–September 1956, Bennett hosted a NBC Saturday night television variety show, The Tony Bennett Show, as a summer replacement for The Perry Como Show

 

In 1954, the guitarist Chuck Wayne became Bennett's musical director. Bennett released his first long-playing album in 1955, Cloud 7. In 1957, Ralph Sharon became Bennett's pianist, arranger, and musical director. Sharon encouraged Bennett to focus on his jazz inclinations.  The result was the 1957 album The Beat of My Heart. It used well-known jazz musicians such as Herbie Mann and Nat Adderley, with a strong emphasis on percussion. The album was both popular and critically praised. Bennett followed this by working with the Count Basie Orchestra, becoming the first male pop vocalist to sing with Basie's band. The albums Basie Swings, Bennett Sings (1958) and In Person! (1959) were the well-regarded fruits of this collaboration.

Bennett also built up the quality, and therefore, the reputation of his nightclub act.  In June 1962, Bennett staged a highly promoted concert performance at Carnegie Hall, using a stellar line-up of musicians. It was a big success, further cementing Bennett's reputation as a star both at home and abroad. Bennett also appeared on television, and in October 1962 he sang on the initial broadcast of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Also in 1962, Bennett released his recording of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco", a decade-old but little-known song originally written for an opera singer.

 

The next year, 1964, brought the Beatles and the British Invasion, and with them still more musical and cultural attention to rock and less to pop, standards, and jazz. Over the next couple of years, Bennett had minor hits with several albums and singles based on show tunes; his last top-40 single was the number 34 "If I Ruled the World" from Pickwick in 1965, but his commercial fortunes were clearly starting to decline. An attempt to break into acting with a role in the poorly received 1966 film The Oscar met with middling reviews for Bennett; he did not enjoy the experience and did not seek further roles.

There was great pressure on singers to record "contemporary" rock songs, and in this vein, Columbia Records' Clive Davis suggested that Bennett do the same. Bennett was very reluctant, and when he tried, the results pleased no one. This was exemplified by Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! (1970), before which Bennett became physically ill at the thought of recording. It featured “misguided attempts at Beatles and other current songs and a ludicrous psychedelic art cover”.

Years later, Bennett would recall his dismay at being asked to do contemporary material.  By 1972, he had departed Columbia and in a couple more years he was without a recording contract.  Taking matters into his own hands, Bennett started his own record company, Improv. He cut some songs that would later become favorites, such as "What is This Thing Called Love?", and made two well-regarded albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (1975) and Together Again (1976), but Improv lacked a distribution arrangement with a major label and by 1977, it was out of business.

As the decade neared its end, Bennett had no recording contract, no manager, and was not performing many concerts outside of Las Vegas. His second marriage was failing; he had developed a drug addiction, was living beyond his means, and had the Internal Revenue Service trying to seize his Los Angeles home.  He had hit bottom.  And this is when he had the NDE.

 

After Danny was brought in and became Bennett’s manager, he got his father's expenses under control, moved him back to New York, and began booking him in colleges and small theaters to get him away from a "Vegas" image. After some effort, a successful plan to pay back the IRS debt was put into place. By 1986, Tony Bennett was re-signed to Columbia Records, this time with creative control, and released The Art of Excellence. This became his first album to reach the charts since 1972.

Danny Bennett felt that younger audiences who were unfamiliar with his father would respond to his music if given a chance. No changes to Tony's formal appearance, singing style, musical accompaniment, or song choice were necessary or desirable. Accordingly, Danny began regularly to book his father on Late Night with David Letterman, a show with a younger audience.  This was subsequently followed by appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Simpsons, Muppets Tonight, and various MTV programs.  The plan worked; as Tony later remembered, "I realized that young people had never heard those songs. Cole Porter, Gershwin – they were like, 'Who wrote that?' To them, it was different. If you're different, you stand out."

with Lady Gaga

During this time, Bennett continued to record, first putting out the acclaimed look-back Astoria: Portrait of the Artist (1990), then emphasizing themed albums such as the Sinatra homage Perfectly Frank (1992) and the Fred Astaire tribute Steppin' Out (1993). The latter two both achieved gold status and won Grammys for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance (Bennett's first Grammys since 1962).

As Bennett was seen at MTV Video Music Awards shows side-by-side with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Flavor Flav, and as his "Steppin' Out with My Baby" video received MTV airplay, it was clear that, as The New York Times said, "Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises."

The new audience reached its height with Bennett's appearance in 1994 on MTV Unplugged. (He quipped on the show, "I've been unplugged my whole career.") Featuring guest appearances by rock and country stars Elvis Costello and k.d. lang (both of whom had an affinity for the standards genre), the show attracted a considerable audience and much media attention. The resulting MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett album went platinum and, besides taking the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance Grammy award for the third straight year, also won the top Grammy prize of Album of the Year.

Since his comeback, Bennett has financially prospered; by 1999, his assets were worth $15 to 20 million. He had no intention of retiring, saying in reference to masters such as Pablo Picasso, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire: "right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older."

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.