How singer Tony Bennett embodied a life well-lived

Tony Bennett, who won 19 Grammys, died on Friday at age 96.

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Few artists are lucky to have the type of career that was afforded beloved Italian crooner Tony Bennett.

Bennett, who died Friday two weeks shy of  his 97th birthday, may be best remembered for his golden standard “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and as the peerless interpreter of the Great American Songbook, but it was an unexpected dividend from a youth-driven TV program that not only resurrected his livelihood, but sent his fame soaring to new heights.

At the height of its popularity, music video channel MTV released a series of acoustic-driven “unplugged” albums done by numerous artists who appeared on the program MTV Unplugged – and in 1994, Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged was named Album of the Year at the 37th annual Grammy Awards and also won him Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance.

To say it changed everything for Bennett, then 67, would be an understatement: he was suddenly hip again, as young and established stars clamoured to either perform or record with the legend, who was known for his warm tone and tasteful delivery.  

Two of the 19-time Grammy winner’s 61 studio albums were recorded as duets with Canadians: 2002’s A Wonderful World with k.d. lang and 2018’s Love Is Here To Stay with Diana Krall – and there were singular songs with Céline Dion ( “If I Ruled The World,” co-written by former Hamilton Spectator reporter Leslie Briscusse) and “Just In Time” with Michael Bublé on his 2006 album Duets: An American Classic – with Bublé appearing again on 2011’s Duets II for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

But his best known duet partner of recent years has no doubt been Lady Gaga – who joined him for  2014’s Cheek To Cheek  (and accompanying TV special) and returned for an encore that would be Bennett’s swansong, 2021’s Love For Sale, recorded while he was slowly being robbed of his faculties by Alzheimer’s following a 2016 diagnosis.

His friendship with Gaga was a special one: she accompanied him during his last performance at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in August 2021 before Bennett bid public life farewell.

Gaga – born Stefani Germanotta – has publicly said that Bennett “saved her life” and that he has served as her mentor, telling her to stick to her guns when it comes to her artistic integrity.

 “Tony, that’s one of the first things he said to me,” she told an interviewer. “He said, don’t you ever, ever, ever, ever – again, or in the future – let anybody take down the quality or the intelligence of what you do.”

An avid painter whose art was globally praised and shown in several galleries, Anthony Dominick Benedetto. born in Long Island City, Queens, NY., on August 3, 1926,  grew up in poverty, but refined his art and singing talents in New York City’s High School of Industrial Art. He began performing at amateur nights all around the city before he was drafted into the United States Army near the tail end of World War II, serving as an infantryman. 

Following his return to America in 1949, he was discovered by Pearl Bailey and then hit the road with Bob Hope, who shortened his name to “Tony Bennett.” In 1950, he was signed to Columbia Records where he made the majority of his albums, striking pay dirt with “Because Of You,” arranged by Toronto-born Percy Faith and produced by Mitch Miller; then followed it up with a rendition of Hank Williams‘ “Cold, Cold Heart” before enjoying a third straight No. 1 with “Rags To Riches.”

He routinely filled theatres (sometimes performing seven shows daily), eventually fronted the Count Basie Orchestra, won a Record of the Year Grammy  for “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” in 1962 and continued to churn out Top 20 hits through the mid-’60s. He became a popular Vegas attraction but fell on hard times after refusing to modernize his material, suffering a debt to the IRS and suffering a near-fatal cocaine overdose in 1979. 

That’s when his son Danny Bennett took over managing his career and booking him into soft seaters and colleges.

When I spoke to him back in 1997 while working for the Hamilton Spectator, Bennett was making arrears for a canceled November 1996 date at Hamilton Place  due to a last-minute invitation to the White House to dine with – and perform for – then-President Bill Clinton at The White House.

Except plans didn’t quite work out: while waiting in his hotel to make the appointment, Bennett suffered a strangulated double hernia.

“Instead of going to dinner, all of a sudden I went to the infirmary, and had the President’s doctor check me out. They rushed me to the hospital, and I had an emergency operation. It was really strange.”

The first operation didn’t take, but Bennett reported that a second one patched him up.

“They did a magnificent job,” reported Bennett, 70 at the time. “It was flawless. I woke up, it was all fixed, and it couldn’t have been better.”

And you’ll never guess who sent Bennett down to Florida in his private jet for a three-week, all-expenses-paid convalescence.

Future U.S. president Donald Trump.

“It was one of those great adventures that will never happen again,” says Bennett. “Everything worked out for the best.”

Bennett – who actually christened Hamilton Place as its venue opener September 29 and 30, 1973 (Tickets were $5, $7.50, and $10) – took pride as being the first Caucasian singer to front the Count Basie Orchestra and fondly recalled their worst gig.

 “I never got over it,” he laughed at the time. “I don’t remember where it was, but it was a triangle, or a rectangle room. The saxes were on one side, and the trumpets and trombones were on the other side. I was at the point where they both met. It was like we were playing two different rooms at the same time.

 “There was a board over some water, so we had a plank we had to walk on to get to the stage so we wouldn’t fall into the water.”

He also took credit for bring Bossa Nova music to North America.

“I met Joao Gilberto, and (Antonio Carlos) Jobim and Astrud Gilberto right on the beach in Brazil, and I couldn’t get over it,” Bennett recalled. “They were influenced by American jazz, and then they just applied it to their Brazilian beat. They invented this beat — it’s a drum beat that has an accent on the second beat rather than the third beat. All of a sudden it no longer was the samba. It became the bossa nova. And Joao Gilberto was the interpreter, and made some beautiful records.

“When I got back from Brazil — the first thing I did was went to San Francisco and showed the disc jockeys there Joao’s records. It just took off like a blaze — like fire to kerosene, right across the whole country. Everybody started playing it right away.”

But Tony Bennett also was candid in confessing that turning 70 at the time, “was kind of a big gulp for me.”

“I had to catch my breath,” he admitted. ” I really happen to like what I do enough to say I wish I had two lifetimes to finish what I want to do.

 “I felt the time clock for the first time. I feel the race is on, which I never felt before. When I was younger, I was just singing. I didn’t feel the mortality rate. So now, every day counts. I’ve got so much more I can do.”

Asked what he treasured most in the year 1997, Bennett had a one-word answer: friendship.

 “Friends become the most important thing,” advised Bennett. “When you feel a failure about something, you feel down in the dumps, there’s always some wonderful friend who’ll come and be wonderful enough to lift you up and say, ‘Well, what about this, ‘ and change your whole spirit.”

He recalled a particular gloomy time in his life when a couple of jazz legends lifted his spirits in New York City.

“I was separated for the first time from my sons, while I was going through my first divorce. I never felt lower in my life. I was in a hotel in New York on Christmas Eve, and I’m one of those guys who is a sucker for Christmas, and the whole family getting together.

 “So, it’s the first time I was ever alone, away from everybody. And I heard a chorus singing, and I thought my TV was on. I walked to my hotel room door, opened it up, and there was a chorus of every denomination singing ‘On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,’ and it just changed my life.

“It was Louie Bellson and Duke Ellington who sent them up to my hotel room. They were doing their Sacred concert across the street, and they heard that I was in that room by myself, and they sent the whole chorus up to me.

 “I realized, ‘wow, what great friends, to take the time out to think of someone else.’”

 Tony Bennett, a positive inspiration, a lifelong civil rights champion, an ambassador of a bygone era and the very definition of a legend, has blessed us with over seven decades of musical genius.        

He may have left his heart in San Francisco, but he’s left an immortal canon of aural and visual artistry  and memories for his adoring fans to treasure forever.