Tony Bennett, the affable pre-rock standards crooner who came to be newly appreciated and beloved by everyone from the grunge generation to Lady Gaga, died on Friday. He was 96. Bennett’s publicist, Sylvia Weiner, confirmed the singer’s death to Rolling Stone, adding that he died in his hometown of New York City.
A cause of death was not specified. But in 2016, Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and began experiencing memory loss, one of the leading symptoms of the disease (which has no known cure). Bennett’s condition, though, was not announced publicly until early 2021.
Tony left us today but he was still singing the other day at his piano and his last song was, “Because of You,” his first #1 hit.
Tony, because of you we have your songs in our heart forever. ❤ pic.twitter.com/hsOqtSdTNg
— Tony Bennett (@itstonybennett) July 21, 2023
With his slightly grainy baritone, avuncular demeanor, and recognizable aquiline nose, Bennett became one of the country’s most popular crooners in the years immediately after Frank Sinatra’s early success. He took on both the Great American Songbook standards alongside tracks by everyone from Hank Williams to the Beatles. Along the way, he helped bring jazz into the mainstream via collaborations with the likes of Count Basie. His trademark song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” was later included in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Bennett won 18 Grammys over his remarkable eight-decade career, most notably Album of the Year for his 1994 MTV Unplugged that featured collaborations with Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang. He also won a Grammy for Cheek to Cheek, his 2014 year collaboration with Gaga, and the industry-wide respect he commanded was evidenced by his 2006 Duets: An American Classic, which paired Bennett with Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Dixie Chicks, Sting, Bono, John Legend, and Billy Joel, among others.
“They call it ‘unplugged,’ but I’ve been acoustical for years, you know?” Bennett told Rolling Stone in 1995. “The young people are a lot different than the older audience. They’re really with it; they really know what’s happening. What I love about it is that this kind of mass adulation from the young audience happened to me a long time ago, but I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Yet despite his easy-going, kind-uncle persona, Bennett experienced his share of turmoil, and he rarely adhered to the image of Vegas entertainers who were often presumed to be musically and politically conservative. While serving in the U.S. Army, he encountered racial prejudice and saw for himself the horrors of concentration camps. He later became a champion of social injustice (taking part in the 1965 Selma march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), overcame a cocaine addiction that almost killed him, and had an experimental streak that almost ended his career in the Seventies.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens, New York, on Aug. 3, 1926, Bennett attended the High School of Industrial Arts in New York. To help support his family during the Depression, he dropped out of school and began working, eventually landing a job as a singing waiter. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944, the later period of World War II, he found himself digging foxholes and dodging German bullets. “Sometimes we’d hear Germans whispering to each other,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Just Getting Started, co-written with Scott Simon. “I’m sure they could hear us too … we just wanted to make it through the night alive.… We’d wake up when those huge, loud shells went off and listen for screams.” His battalion helped liberate a concentration camp near the infamous one in Dachau, Germany.
In the army, he also had his first troubling encounter with prejudice: separate dining quarters for Black and white soldiers. After eating dinner with a fellow soldier — a Black friend from high school — Bennett was demoted from corporal to private and reassigned to a lower position. “This was another unbelievable example of the degree of prejudice that was so widespread in the Army during World War II,” he wrote in an earlier memoir, The Good Life.
Initially singing in an army band, Bennett continued that interest after the war, using funds from the G.I. Bill to study at the American Theater Wing in New York. To downplay his Italian heritage — another result of his army experience — he renamed himself “Joe Bari” and began singing in New York clubs. He landed a major break when he opened for singer and actress Pearl Bailey at a Greenwich Village club in the early Fifties. Bob Hope, then one of the country’s biggest and most mainstream entertainers, saw Bennett there and invited him to open one of his shows. Hope made another major impact on Bennett’s life, telling him he should drop “Joe Bari” and instead go with “Tony Bennett,” derived from his real name.
Soon after, Bennett signed with Columbia Records and released his first single, “Because of You,” in 1951. He covered Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” and had Top 20 pop hits with “Can You Find It in Your Heart” (1956), which matched his baritone with a touch of big-band swagger, and the more lighthearted “In the Middle of an Island” (1957). But Bennett, who developed a singing style based on imitating jazz instruments rather than other singers, also had a deep love of jazz, resulting in two albums with Count Basie in 1959.
His most celebrated song, the yearning “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” written by George Cory and Douglass Cross, was originally the B side of a single, “Once Upon a Time.” But the flip side clicked, resulting in a Top 20 hit in 1962. “The line ‘My love waits there in San Francisco’ is songwriting brilliance,” Bennett wrote in Just Getting Started. “It touches your heart. Is it an old love you left behind? A new love you hope to find?“
Long a champion of civil rights — especially after his Army incident — Bennett participated in the Selma march after his friend, Harry Belafonte, invited him. Bennett later admitted that he was unsure at first. “I said I’m not, I’m walking away from all this,” Bennett recalled in 2013. “But then [Belafonte] told me what went down; what was going 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.’ I just realized that this is insanity.”
As with many of his non-rock peers, Bennett began encountering career troubles as the Sixties progressed. His short hair, smooth style, and aversion to rock dented his popularity. After Columbia forced him to record an album of pop and rock standards (including songs by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Jimmy Webb) in 1971, he soon left the label and started his own, Improv.
The result was a streak of acclaimed albums (including two with pianist Bill Evans) that bolstered Bennett’s jazz credentials. Yet the albums didn’t sell well, and by the middle of that decade, Bennett lived a fairly decadent life in Los Angeles, indulging in cocaine and weed. He almost drowned when he passed out in a bathtub at home while high; Sandra Grant, his wife at the time, rescued him. Of his equally indulgent musical friends of the time, he wrote, “We told each other, in so many ways, that drugs were just what creative people used to open their imagination or soften the harsh realities of an unfair world.”
In the Eighties, Bennett’s son Danny began overseeing his career. Bennett re-signed with Columbia, releasing the well-received The Art of Excellence in 1986. Under his son’s guidance, Bennett cut back on cheesy Las Vegas gigs in favor of appearances on David Letterman and, later, The Simpsons. The gamble paid off: With Sinatra in increasingly poor health, Bennett, who always had a less pugilistic image than Sinatra, became one of the last links to a previous generation. And his insistence on sticking with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and other classic pre-rock songwriters made him seen uncompromising rather than dated.
That strategy paid off in 1994 with the release of his MTV Unplugged appearance and albums. At the Grammys the following year, he met Nineties rockers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I really like him,” Bennett said of Flea to Rolling Stone in 1995. “I like Anthony [Kiedis], too. Here I am standing around in a suit and tie, and Anthony is completely naked, and Flea had tattoos all over him. The only thing I could think of to say was ‘My mother likes you.’ Ever since then, we hit it off!” In 2004, Bennett was invited to participate in Neil and Pegi Young’s annual Bridge School benefits, where her shared a stage with Neil, the Chili Peppers, McCartney, and Sonic Youth.
Even as he entered his Eighties, Bennett remained indefatigable. In March 2011, he recorded a duet with Amy Winehouse of “Body and Soul” for a second duets album. “It was wonderful, you know?” Bennett said of the session to Rolling Stone several years later. “Everybody was apprehensive as to how it’s going to go. When I told her that she was influenced by a great jazz singer years ago, she said, ‘Do you know that?’; And it just changed everything. What I regret of her is that she’s really the best of all the young artists that I met in the current scene in the last 10 or 15 years. She’s a true jazz artist. It’s just too tragic that she died. I wanted to talk her out of the drugs, but unfortunately I never had a chance to talk to her.” (The duet was later awarded a Grammy.)
In 2014, Bennett, by now very much an elder statesman of pop, hooked up with Gaga, a devoted fan, for the first of two collaborations, Cheek to Cheek. The pairing seemed unusual, but Gaga’s love of the Great American Songbook made it a natural pairing. “She’s so fabulous — I personally think that she is going to be as big — if not even bigger — than Elvis Presley,” Bennett told Rolling Stone. “She’s not going to be a quick flash. She’s too much of a performer. She’s really had good training at Julliard, you know, studying piano and singing. She knows what she’s doing.” The album won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop vocal Album.
“Tony Bennett was the one of the most important interpreters of American popular song during the mid to late 20th century,” Billy Joel said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “He championed songwriters who might otherwise have remained unknown to many millions of music fans. His was a unique voice that made the transition from the era of Jazz into the age of Pop. I will always be grateful for his outstanding contribution to the art of contemporary music. He was a joy to work with. His energy and enthusiasm for the material he was performing was infectious. He was also one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known.”
Elton John, work sang alongside Bennett on the crooner’s 2006 album Duets: An American Classic, wrote on social media, “So sad to hear of Tony’s passing. Without doubt the classiest singer, man, and performer you will ever see. He’s irreplaceable. I loved and adored him.”
Martin Scorsese said in a statement to Rolling Stone, “Tony Bennett was a consummate artist. All you have to do is listen to any one of his hundreds of recordings to recognize that. Very early on, his music quietly wove itself into the fabric of our lives. His voice felt as familiar and as close as the voices of our loved ones. I know that this was true for millions of people around the world. For Italian-Americans who were growing up in the middle of the twentieth century, that familiarity ran even deeper. At a certain point, we started to imagine that Tony would live forever. Of course he didn’t. Nobody does. But the music? That’s another story.”
Bennett, who lived in New York City, was also an avid painter. In later years, he recorded a duet album with Diana Krall (Love Is Here to Stay) and a second with Gaga (Love for Sale). He is also survived by his third wife, Susan, whom he met in 1985 and married in 2007.