July 21, 2023
Tony Bennett, the vintage crooner who re-established himself in old age as an eternally hip American original, died Friday at 96 after battling Alzheimer's disease.
Bennett had been dealing with the illness since 2016, yet carried on performing and recording until 2021, when he publicized his battle and gave farewell performances with frequent collaborator Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall.
His final live performance and public appearance was in August of that year, the same hear he released his last album, Love for Sale, which became a Top 10 hit and established a new record — Bennett, then 95, was certified as the oldest person to release an album of entirely new material.
Bennett was born on August 3, 1926, in Queens, New York. After nightmarish service in WWII that established his lifelong pacifism, he began recording in 1949.
Signed to Columbia the following year, his first big hit was 1951's "Because of You," a song his estate said was the last he played on the piano, days before his death.
Other chart toppers included "Cold, Cold Heart" (1951), "Rags to Riches" (1953) and "Stranger in Paradise" (1953).
A master interpreter of the American songbook who differentiated himself from Frank Sinatra (a big admirer), he tackled the explosion of rock 'n' roll in a variety of ways — by covering popular Broadway tunes, by briefly hosting (in 1956) his own TV series and appearing prolifically on the new medium, by venturing organically into jazz, and by working up a nightclub act that served as a blueprint for many other performers in the same predicament.
He was also one of the guests on the first installment of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1962. With his passing, only 97-year-old Mel Brooks remains from that broadcast.
That same year, Bennett's cover of the 10-year-old song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" became his signature tune, earning him a Grammy and going on to become one of the most famous recordings of the last century — even though it only mustered a Top 20 appearance on the Billboard Hot 100.
Having weathered rock, the British invasion sank Bennett for over a decade. He lived beyond his means and developed a drug addiction that culminated, in 1979, in a cocaine overdose that nearly ended it all.
Unsure of how to proceed, Bennett asked his sons for help. Danny Bennett, a musician of limited talent — but in possession of a sharp business mind — stepped in and began helping to rebrand his dad. Instead of leaning into the lounge-lizard vibe, they put Bennet on hip TV shows like Late Night with David Letterman. Instead of playing Vegas, he toured colleges.
With effort, Tony Bennett became hip in his 60s.
Bennett returned to the album charts in the '80s, and even sang an Oscar-nominated tune — "Life in a Looking Glass" from 1986's That's Life.
Most transformatively, Bennett began as association with MTV in the '90s, leading to his special MTV Unplugged and its ensuing 1994 album MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year over works by the Three Tenors, Bonnie Raitt, Seal and Eric Clapton.
In 2006, Bennett enjoyed his highest-ever Billboard 200 entry with the album Duets: An American Classic, which contained Amy Winehouse's last recording, the moving collaboration "Body and Soul."
He topped it by hitting pole position on the albums chart for the first time with Duets II in 2011, which led to a fruitful collaboration with Lady Gaga. Their album Cheek to Cheek broke his own record as the oldest person with a chart-topping album — he was 88 when it debuted atop the Billboard 200 in 2014.
It spawned a live album and tour that not only rejuvenated Bennett's career, it gave Gaga's own career a jump-start after her disappointing showing with 2013's Artpop.
His final album was also with Lady Gaga, 2021's Love for Sale.
Bennett released over 70 albums throughout his career, over 60 studio albums, sold more than 50 million records, won 18 competitive Grammys and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, won two Emmys and was a Kennedy Center Honoree (2005).
He's survived by his wife Susan Benedetto, his sons, Danny and Dae Bennett, his daughters Johanna Bennett and Antonia Bennett, and his nine grandchildren.