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Tony Bennett, king of the American Songbook, dead at 96

Tony Bennett poses while signing an autograph in 1988.
Bernt Claesson
/
Pressens Bild/AFP via Getty Images
Tony Bennett poses while signing an autograph in 1988.

Tony Bennett, the internationally famous singer whose voice epitomized the American Songbook, has died. He was 96.

Bennett died Friday morning in New York City, according to a representative for the singer. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2016, but his condition didn't stop him from occasionally performing live or releasing new music. He reached the Billboard Top 10 at age 95 in 2021 thanks to his second duet album with Lady Gaga, Love For Sale, and celebrated his retirement the same year with two touching nights at Radio City Music Hall.

Bennett hit the scene as a suave crooner in the 1950s and quickly established himself as one of radio's most popular hit-makers. He was a showman, with an intimate nightclub sensibility. He wore that persona everywhere. It was like his tailored suits: age appropriate, yet timelessly cool.

He cut his first sides when he was 20 years old, including the song "St. James Infirmary Blues," which was made right after World War II with a U.S. Army band in Germany.

The world knew him as Tony Bennett; Bob Hope gave him that name. But he was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. His father died when he was 10. Eventually, he quit high school, working odd jobs to help support his family.

"I became a singing waiter in Astoria, Long Island," Bennett told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1998, "and it was the only job that I said, 'If I have to do this the rest of my life, I'd be happy doing that.' "

In that interview, Bennett also noted that music was a family affair that started back in Italy, with his father, who charmed his community with opera. "In Calabria," the singer said, "he had a reputation for singing on top of the mountain. The whole valley would hear it, and they enjoyed him so much."

Bennett himself studied opera, specifically the technique of bel canto singing, on the G.I. bill. He says a teacher told him to emulate the phrasing of instrumentalists to find his own voice.

His demo of "The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" made it to producer Mitch Miller at Columbia Records, and Bennett was signed in 1950. In short order, he sold millions of records, and a 10-year string of hits followed.

Bennett made a name for himself as a crooner, but he loved jazz. He wasn't sure he could pull it off.

"He always says, 'I'm not a jazz singer,' but he has a great feel for a beat," Bennett's accompanist and arranger for more than 50 years, Ralph Sharon, told NPR in 1998. Sharon added that the likes of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appreciated the jazz sensibility that Bennett brought to pop music. "I think that's why musicians love to play with Tony, and also like to listen to him," Sharon noted.

And because he liked listening to them, Bennett wanted to sing with them. He leveraged his pop stardom to record jazz albums with Art Blakey and the Count Basie Orchestra.

No matter what style Bennett tried on, Sharon says one thing was clear: "I think it definitely is and was an identifiable sound. I think you always knew it was him."

Then, in 1962, Bennett's career really took off with the song "I Left My Heart In San Francisco."

Sharon says the song that became Bennett's signature was an accident. Sharon found the sheet music stashed in a drawer, along with some shirts. He packed it before hitting the road.

"I always remember," recounts Sharon, "we got to a place called Hot Springs, Arkansas, and I took this out of my bag, and looked at it, and called Tony. And I said, 'You know something, we're going to San Francisco next.' And I said, 'This is a song here that might be interesting.' "

It was much more than that. "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" became an international hit — clinging to the U.S. charts for almost a year, and winning Bennett two Grammy Awards.

With his superstardom, Bennett lent his voice to social causes, including civil rights. In 1965, protesters attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., were attacked. The incident became known as "Bloody Sunday." Two weeks later, Harry Belafonte persuaded Bennett to brave the violence down South and go with him to Montgomery to perform, as Bennett recalled on CNN in 2013.

"I didn't want to do it," Bennett told CNN, "but then he told me what went down — how some blacks were burned. Had gasoline thrown on them and they were burned. When I heard that, I said, 'I'll go with you.'"

Bennett was sensitive to the changing times, but he wasn't too keen to change his music. Bennett mostly refused to sing rock, the new sound. Instead, he stuck to standards and recorded two acclaimed albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans. Bennett played smaller venues and even did a little bit of television: The Muppet Show, David Letterman, The Simpsons and MTV.

In 1994, he sang on MTV Unplugged, with k.d. lang making a cameo.
The success of the show and album helped tee up Bennett's next 20 years, putting his voice to the ears of a brand-new generation. He went on to make duet recordings with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Lady Gaga, who later became his biggest cheerleader and an ambassador to a legion of new fans.

He told NPR in 2011 that music was his life and the secret to his longevity.

"I love life," he said. "I wish I could communicate to the whole planet what a gift it is to be alive."

Being alive, for Tony Bennett, meant following his passions, which included not only music, but painting landscapes and portraits — signed "Antonio Benedetto."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.
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