The legendary New York crooner passed away at 96, and sang his very first #1 hit, “Because of You,” at his piano just a day before he died.
This year has witnessed the loss of two musical greats, with Tina Turner’s death last May, and now, Tony Bennett’s. The jazz legend passed away in his New York home on July 21 (Friday). While his family hasn’t announced a specific cause of death, Bennett has been dealing with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease since 2016.
READ ALSO: The Best: Honoring Music Icon Tina Turner
He leaves behind his wife Susan and four children: Danny, Dae, Joanna, and Antonia.
The world knows Bennett as the raspy and deeply resonant voice behind a variety of classic jazz standards, big band hits, and show tunes. One might assume that only an older demographic consumes his work, but that’s far from the truth. His songs carry a timeless quality that fans of all ages enjoy.
“He didn’t bridge the generation gap, he destroyed it,” shared Danny Bennett, the singer’s son and manager, with CBS Sunday Morning.
“Good music is good music,” Tony Bennett once said in a 2008 interview with Independent. “I’m not concerned with whether someone who listens to me is old or young.”
The Very Thought Of You
Many famous personalities and fellow legends in the music industry took to social media to pay tribute to the late Bennett.
“Tony Bennett didn’t just sing the classics — he himself was an American classic,” said Joe Biden in a statement.
Elton John wrote: “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. Condolences to Susan, Danny and the family.”
“Tony Bennett was the one of the most important interpreters of American popular song during the mid to late 20th century,” added Billy Joel in a recent statement to Rolling Stone. “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.”
In a similar statement to Rolling Stone, director Martin Scorcese shared: “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.”
King of the American Songbook
Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926. He was the son of Italian immigrants, and lost his father when he was just six, which threw his family deeper into poverty. Still, Bennett developed an affinity for singing, and began his craft at an early age.
He worked as a singing waiter before studying music and painting at New York’s School of Industrial Art. Shortly after, he served in the US Army in 1944 towards the end of World War II.
When he returned home, he continued performing under the name “Joe Bari,” before changing it to the ever-recognizable “Tony Bennett” (penned by American entertainer Bob Hope).
Bennett rose to prominence with his first number one hit, “Because of You,” in 1951. Upon the release of his first album of the same name in 1952, he became a teenage icon. Meanwhile, his cover of an old hit, “ I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” won him two Grammys.
His eventual collaboration with the legendary Frank Sinatra further shot him to fame and transformed his career. In an interview with Life Magazine, Sinatra famously said: “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business.”
Fighting the Good Fight
Serving the US military the 1940s transformed Bennett into a pacifist with staunch anti-war views. “It’s legalized murder,” he once shared in a 2013 interview with The Guardian.
“I think he suffered post traumatic stress syndrome like a lot of veterans did and didn’t talk about at the time,” shared Danny, his son and manager, with CBS Sunday Morning. “All he said was, ‘War is the worst, lowest common-denominator in humanity.’”
Bennett was also a big supporter of the 1960s civil rights movement. He participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 and went as far as refusing to perform for apartheid-era South Africa.
Making a Comeback
That said, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the talented singer. The advent of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones drastically changed music trends and preferences, and sadly, Bennett had some difficulty fitting into the new era. Despite his attempts to sing rock and roll, his relevance began to wane, and the singer dealt with a slew of personal problems including substance abuse.
However, better days were just around the corner, as Bennett sobered up shortly after a near-death experience.
“I knew I had to make major changes in my life,” he once shared. After appointing his son Danny as his manager, and reuniting with his musical director Ralph Sharon, things took a turn for the better. Rather than trying to fit in, Bennett continued what he did best: sing the classics.
Bennett’s revival came in the 1980s and 1990s with his album “The Art of Excellence,” and hit tribute to Frank Sinatra entitled “Perfectly Frank.”
Throughout his eight-decade career, Bennett would go on to win 20 Grammys—including a Lifetime Achievement Award. The rest, as they say, is history (once more).
A Supporter in Every Way
Bennett used his fame and years of experience as a platform to support fellow artists.
“He championed songwriters who might otherwise have remained unknown to many millions of music fans,” shared Billy Joel in his Rolling Stone statement. Indeed, Bennett was a friend to many, known for his kindness and ability to recognize talent.
For instance, he saw great potential in the late Amy Winehouse, and wanted to collaborate with her. Shortly before her death, they recorded the song “Body and Soul,” which currently has 47 million views on Youtube.
“He saw a future for Amy Winehouse and wanted to put a reassuring hand on her and let her know that if she’d let her talents speak up, he would be there to support her,” explained Scott Simon, the co-writer of Bennett’s memoir Just Getting Started.
He also collaborated with other talents like Carrie Underwood, Queen Latifah, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and George Michael in his two-part, acclaimed Duets series.
I Get a Kick Out Of You
His most famous collaboration, however, is his unlikely friendship with pop star Lady Gaga. The two met at a tumultuous point in Gaga’s creative career and worked together on an album of beloved jazz standards called Cheek to Cheek.
During this period, Gaga established herself as a versatile vocalist of exceptional prowess, transcending the pop image she carried for years. The pair went on a Cheek to Cheek tour from 2014 to 2015, performing in a variety of concerts together.
Since then, both of them have supported each other through every step of their careers. In an article for Entertainment Weekly, Joey Nolfi wrote about spotting Bennett shimmying along to songs during a concert for Gaga’s Joanne world tour. As for Gaga, there’s no doubt that the multi-hyphenated singer adores the old man.
In 2021 videos of the pair performing classic jazz duets, one can see her genuine care and admiration for the aging Bennett, who was still singing beautifully. They promoted their final joint album together, Love for Sale, as the veteran dealt with Alzheimer’s.
Gaga also escorted Bennett during performances and interviews, including one with Anderson Cooper where she acknowledged the situation at hand.
“It’s not a sad story, it’s emotional. It’s hard to watch somebody change. I think what’s been beautiful about this, and what’s been challenging, is to see how it affects him in some ways, but to see how it doesn’t affect his talent,” she shared. “I think he really pushed through something to give the world the gift of knowing that things can change and you can still be magnificent.”
Love Is Here To Stay
Bennett’s battle with Alzheimer’s was most evident towards the later parts of his life. Despite a widely-acclaimed performance with Lady Gaga in Radio City Music Hall—the last he would have with her—Bennett couldn’t remember the experience just days later.
Still, the love he had for his craft was so strong and instinctual, it was the one thing that granted him moments of true lucidity. He would continue to perform songs without skipping a beat, even until his final days.
“When he sings, he’s the old Tony,” shared Susan, his wife, in a 2021 AARP profile. Bennett sang his first hit “Because of You” on the piano for her just a day before he passed away, according to a tweet from his official Twitter. The last thing he said to his son Danny was “Thank you.”
Nothing encapsulates Bennett’s devotion to the music better than what he said in an interview with The New York Times: “I could have retired 16 years ago, but I just love what I’m doing.” He truly was, as the jazz classic goes, unforgettable.
Banner photo via Twitter @itstonybennett.