Resiliency best describes legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett. His musical career has spanned well over half a century, having created his own singing style that integrates jazz with voice imitation of instrumental solos.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto , in 1926, in Astoria, N.Y., Bennett’s father was a grocer who had emigrated from Italy’s Calabria region. His mother was a seamstress whose parents also came to the United States from Calabria.
At age 10, Bennett performed at the opening of the Triborough Bridge and a few years later was singing in restaurants. After dropping out of New York’s School of Industrial Art at the age of 16, he set his sights on a professional singing career, performing at amateur nights and nightclubs.
Bennett’s vision for musical stardom was put on hold temporarily after he was drafted into the U.S. Army in November 1944, during World War II. Stationed at the front line, he faced bitter cold conditions, narrowly escaping death many times. Bennett has said that the entire experience made him the pacifist that he is today.
After the war, Bennett studied at the American Theater Wing and in the evenings went back to singing as a waiter in New York restaurants. Bob Hope invited Bennett to come on tour in 1949, and was the first to suggest that he use the name Tony Bennett. Columbia Records signed Bennett in 1950. The following year, his first big hit, “Because of You,” sold over a million copies and hit number one on the pop charts.
Other popular songs soon followed, including “Blue Velvet,” “Stranger in Paradise” and “Rags to Riches,” with Bennett performing an intense five-to-seven show a day pace in New York, attracting throngs of screaming teenage fans.
Bennett’s 1953 hit “Rags to Riches” was the first song of his to feature an up-tempo big band sound and was the start of Bennett tilting his musical style towards jazz. Later, in 1962, Bennett’s song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” would become one of his signature tracks.
The late ’60s to late ’70s proved a difficult time for Bennett’s career and personal life. The British Invasion came and with it audiences focused on rock rather than jazz and pop music. Under his own label, Bennett attempted different approaches to his music to attract audiences back, even incorporating some rock material. But the audience did not respond and soon Bennett found himself without a contract or a manager.
At the end of the ’70s, Bennett was in a dark place. A near-fatal cocaine overdose and fear that audiences no longer wanted to hear his music had him calling his sons seeking help. Danny Bennett signed on as his father’s manager, moving his father away from the “Vegas” style shows he had been doing.
Danny wanted to get his father in front of a younger audience, feeling that this group would love Bennett’s music. For his part, Bennett changed nothing of his style or manner, maintaining his formal dress appearance and not attempting to wander into musical styles that made him uncomfortable. It was jazz and the audience loved it.
Soon, Bennett was booking gigs on every television late show, even taking his singing to MTV audiences in an Unplugged concert. The audiences loved him and the older generations were coming back to him. Countless artist collaborations would follow, but all along Bennett always stayed true to what he loved—jazz.