Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BENNETT, Tony

(b Antonio Dominick Benedetto, 3 August 1926, Queens, NY) Jazz-influenced pop ballad singer, highly rated by critics and public for decades. His father was a grocer; he sang since childhood and was a singing waiter as a teenager; after service in US Army he appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout show and was discovered '50 by Pearl Bailey and Bob Hope working as Joe Bari. A Columbia contract that year on the strength of demo records included 'Boulevard Of Broken Dreams', revived from '34 film Moulin Rouge (with Russ Colombo; score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin): there was critical praise but no hit. 

He complained to Paul Weston about the material that Mitch Miller wanted him to record; when Miller was out of town Percy Faith gave him 'Because Of You' (written '40 by Dudley Wilkinson and Arthur Hammerstein, uncle of Oscar II): this was a no. 1 hit in '51 and stayed in the chart for 31 weeks; the flip side 'I Won't Cry Anymore' also did well. 'Cold, Cold Heart' (by Hank Williams) was no. 1 the same year and Hot 100 entries followed in Billboard almost every year for 16 years: 24 top 40 hits '50-64 incl. 'Rags To Riches' by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (no. 1 '53); 'Stranger In Paradise' from show Kismet, tune by Russian composer Alexander Borodin (no. 3 '53); 'There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight', another Williams song (no. 11 '54).

Other songs now identified with him include 'Just In Time' '56 (from show Bells Are Ringing), 'I Left My Heart In San Francisco' '62, 'I Wanna Be Around' and 'The Good Life' '63, 'Who Can I Turn To' '64 (by Anthony Newley), many more. Twenty-five LPs charted '62-72 included four arranged by Robert Farnon, also I Left My Heart In San Francisco '62, I Wanna Be Around '63 (combined on a 'two for one' CD '96), also two-LP At Carnegie Hall '62.

Pianist Ralph Sharon (b 17 Sep. 1923, London, England; d 31 March 2015, Boulder CO) was Bennett's music director for years. The Sharon trio's series of tributes to songwriters included sets of Harold Arlen and Sammy Cahn on DRG, the latter with guest Gerry Mulligan; and Rodgers and Hart with Lennie Bush and Jack Parnell on Horatio Nelson, made in London '91. It was Sharon to whom somebody gave 'I Left My Heart In San Francisco', which had originally been written for an opera singer; Sharon put the sheet music in a drawer and forgot about it for a while, then produced it at a Bennett recording session, and no song has ever been more attached to a singer. Bennett compared Sharon to Bill Miller, who played for Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Tucker, who worked for Billie Holiday, then was Billy Eckstine's music director for years, as fine jazz musicians who also knew how to accompany a singer, a rare talent.

Bennett also recorded with Count Basie (including In Person '58); two LPs '75-6 accompanied solo by Bill Evans were followed by Together Again '78 on DRG. More albums included live Beautiful Music with the McPartlands '77 (on DRG as Make Magnificent Music), a Rodgers And Hart Songbook with Ruby Braff and The Special Magic Of Tony Bennett with arranger/conductor Torrie Zito, both on DRG. His last chart album had been The Good Things In Life '72 on MGM/Verve; Columbia during the Clive Davis years had decided Bennett didn't fit its new corporate image, then had to coax him back: his next chart album was on Columbia, The Art Of Excellence '86, co-produced by his son Danny, with Sharon's trio and strings, including 'I Got Lost In Her Arms' from the Irving Berlin show Annie Get Your Gun, James Taylor's 'Everybody Has The Blues' (a duet with Ray Charles). Two-disc anthology Tony Bennett/Jazz '87 included a previously unreleased 'Danny Boy' from '64 with Stan Getz, transmuting a gooey song; Bennett And Berlin '87 had guests George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon; Perfectly Frank '92 was a tribute to his friend's 'torch and saloon songs'.

'I was the Madonna of my day. I just didn't take my clothes off,' Bennett once said. Though his friend Frank Sinatra called him 'the best singer in the business' '65, vicissitudes in his career and lack of recording '80s may have been caused by the fact that he is a gentleman and a devout Catholic: he didn't want to sing in certain kinds of places, or make certain kinds of friends. But he was discovered by a new generation and became the epitome of cool. He was seen in a Nike commercial; he shared stages with the Lemonheads and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; he was invited to play Woodstock II; Annie Leibovitz shot his album covers; Marcus Nispel directed a video 'Steppin' Out' that made Bennett a star on MTV, the title track of an album '93 inspired by Fred Astaire; MTV offered him an Unplugged spot: 'I've always been unplugged,' he said, but the '94 album won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Here's To The Ladies '95 compiled songs made famous by female singers from Billie Holiday to Doris Day. A Four-CD set, Forty Years: The Artistry Of Tony Bennett on Columbia, with a song-by-song commentary in the booklet by Bennett, celebrated a great career. He is also a painter under his real name; his first exhibit was in Chicago '77, followed by others in Paris, London, San Francisco, L.A., NYC. 'I love to perform and paint. That's plenty. What's wrong with just being good at what you do?'