Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Bennett, Tony (Anthony Dominic Benedetto)

The cover to Tony Bennett's 2006 album, Duets – An American Classic, makes a remarkable visual statement about the singer's six-decade career: his portrait is constructed pointillistically out of a zillion tiny little buttons, each of which bears a picture of him from the 1940s up to the present, plus one which bears the likeness of piano master Art Tatum. The cover's message is clear. Tony Bennett's identity contains all of his past identities: the pop crooner of the early 1950s, the major jazz stylist of the 1960s and 1970s, and his most recent incarnation as the savior of the Great American Songbook since the 1990s.

                                           Tony Bennett
                                     photo by Jos L. Knaepen

This album, released to commemorate Bennett's eightieth birthday, was essentially a career retrospective, containing new versions of the singer’s signature hits, done as duets with contemporary pop stars. Bennett was himself the last great pop star before rock and roll, and the singer who started out as an "overnight" singing sensation has since become a national cultural institution.

Bennett has long represented the best in American music. His voice combines the strengths of the jazz world, in particular the influence of Louis Armstrong, with the great tradition of show music exemplified by Judy Garland and Jimmy Durante. With his endearingly husky voice and inspired sense of swing, Bennett proves that high levels of artistic achievement can still be conducive to lasting mass-popularity even in a music industry committed to the fast-fading trends of the moment.

He has kept true to his own high standards even in times when external pressures insisted he concentrate on material he rightfully considered beneath him. Bennett has consistently collaborated with the best arrangers and musicians he could find.

Born Anthony Dominic Benedetto on August 3, 1926 in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, Bennett worked as a singing waiter until he joined the Army in 1944. During the war he sang with an Army orchestra based in Germany, which was modeled after Glenn Miller's famous American Armed Forces band.

Benedetto returned to New York City after the war, studied at the American Theatre Wing under the G. I. Bill. While working with vocal coach and arranger Tony Tamburro, Bennett was "discovered" in succession by Pearl Bailey, Bob Hope - who takes credit for coming up with the name "Tony Bennett" and Mitch Miller of Columbia Records.

Bennett's voice created an immediate sensation at Columbia, for whom he recorded big, dramatic belting numbers, such as “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” his first recording, and the breakthrough hit “Because Of You.”

Starting with these early successes, Bennett ceaselessly worked to improve his craft, and to grow ever more sophisticated as a vocal artist. While cultivating his attractively robust tone, Bennett perfected a gift for dynamics as well as emotional involvement that made him the envy of most of his peers.

“I never tried for a hit record,” says Bennett, “I always tried for a hit catalog.” Bennett’s number one inspiration in this regard was always Frank Sinatra: rather than let his producers, such as Miller, pressure him to record cheesy forgettable singles which might shoot to the top of The Hit Parade for a minute and a half, Bennett followed Sinatra’s example of concentrating on the classic show tunes and the Great American Songbook.

Bennett enjoyed a string of major hits in the early to mid-‘50s, including “Blue Velvet,” “Rags To Riches,” “Cold, Cold Heart” - one of the first country songs to catch on with a mainstream audience – and “Stranger In Paradise.”

Mitch Miller often said, “Whenever Tony gets a hit record, he wants to do a jazz album!” Also like Sinatra, Bennett was one of the first pop singers to fully explore the long-playing album format, and, as Miller suggests, most of his early albums grew out of his desire to express himself in the jazz medium: Cloud 7 from 1954 featured Bennett singing standards backed by a small combo featuring tenor sax great Al Cohn. The Beat Of My Heart, his first collaboration with British pianist Ralph Sharon, who became his long-time partner, was a unique jazz concept album in which Bennett explored different kinds of swinging rhythm with half a dozen different drummers, including Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, “Papa” Jo Jones and master conguero Candido Cámero.

The album Tony, recorded in 1956, was a collection of standards with a full big band that utilized an arrangement by Gil Evans, and the very ambitious Home Town, My Town from 1957 spotlighted the singer in a large format, almost symphonic but very hip setting with arrangements by the brilliant orchestrator Ralph Burns.

Bennett was also the first major pop star to record a whole album - actually, two - with jazz icon William "Count" Basie and his orchestra. The first of these was 1958's In Person! With Count Basie, which was followed by Bennett & Basie - Strike Up The Band the following year.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, he made a pair of incredibly intimate jazz albums with Sharon, Tony Sings For Two in 1959, a beautiful series of voice-and-keyboard duets, and When Lights Are Low in 1964, with Sharon’s trio, which included the brilliant drummer Billy Exiner.

Already by the early 1960s, Bennett had outlasted most of his vocal rivals. In the late 1950s, with the coming of rock and roll, Bennett, at first scored fewer hit singles, but surprisingly, by the mid-1960s he enjoyed a major resurgence as a chart hitmaker, starting with his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” and continuing through “The Good Life,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “Watch What Happens,” “Wave” and others.

In 1962, he consolidated his successes in a spectacular concert at Carnegie Hall that was quickly released by Columbia as a double LP, and later a double-CD set. One highlight from this consistently brilliant set is “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

Bennett's memorable albums from this period include The Movie Song Album from 1965 and Yesterday I Heard The Rain from 1968, which extended his tradition of combining the best of jazz and popular music into a single package.

Throughout much of 1968 Bennett toured in a package with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, but the times were changing all around him, and he faced increasing pressure from Columbia Records to change with the times. He also underwent a painful divorce and a tumultuous second marriage in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was a rough period for him, and when he felt ill-treated by Columbia Records, his professional home for 20 years – at that time his whole career – he declined to renew his contract.

In the mid-1970s, Bennett formed his own label, Improv Records. He produced albums of his own, such as 1977's Life is Beautiful with beautiful orchestrations by his regular musical director, Torrie Zito, as well as with a quartet co-led by cornetist Ruby Braff and guitarist George Barnes. Concord Records has combined and re-released Bennett's work from this period, including his two masterful 1973 albums of songs by Rodgers and Hart, such as “Lover,” on CD.

Bennett’s most celebrated project of the period - and possibly of all time – was a pair of duet albums he recorded with the pianist Bill Evans. OnThe Tony Bennett – Bill Evans Album from 1975 and Tony Bennett & Bill Evans Together Again in 1977, the sensitivity of Bennett’s singing and Evans’s celestial keyboard work, is quite unlike anything else ever recorded, and these two albums set a new standard for voice and piano interaction on tunes such as “Young And Foolish.”

In 1985, Bennett began a new phase of his career, orchestrated by his manager and son, Danny. Bennett returned to Columbia Records, which had been taken over Sony, and is now Sony-BMG, with a fairly spectacular album, titled, immodestly but accurately The Art of Excellence. He continued to tour and recorded regularly, and in the early 1990s his career surged thanks to the success of two thoughtful tributes to his friends and inspirations. The first of these, Perfectly Frank, honored Frank Sinatra and included “Nancy." The second, Steppin’ Out, honored dancer Fred Astaire and featured "Steppin' Out With My Baby."

Thanks in part to the ingenuity of Danny Bennett, this last track was successfully marketed not only to his father’s core audience, listeners of his own generation, but to the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who were referred to in the media of the period as “Generation X.”

The song “Steppin’ Out” proved so popular with the MTV generation, that Bennett was invited to perform on the MTV series Unplugged. The resulting album was perhaps the most successful of the singer’s entire career, selling in huge quantities and earning Bennett a Grammy Award in the “Traditional Pop” category, which originated in 1992.

In all, Bennett has won ten Grammy awards, but his MTV Unplugged album won the “Big” Grammy for best overall “Album Of The Year” in 1995. Bennett was virtually the only non-rock, or “contemporary pop,” performer to win in this category in almost 40 years. The next was pianist Herbie Hancock, who won in 2008.

For three decades, Bennett has reigned as the leading elder statesman of song, and the only performer of his generation who is still regarded as current and contemporary. Since his eightieth birthday, he has released two albums, the aforementioned Duets: An American Classic and A Swingin' Christmas, which documents his reunion with The Count Basie Orchestra.

He was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment For The Arts in 2006, the United States' highest honor for a jazz musician, and, not unimportantly, he was married for the third time in July 2007.

While many other singers of his generation have been forgotten, or merely reprise their hits in nostalgia packages, Tony Bennett has kept his career fresh and vital. Bennett was one of the first singers to explore the possibilities of the long-playing album, and has consistently used jazz to expand his musical horizons, recording many all-jazz albums.

At 82, he still maintains a full schedule of performances, and lives up to the description of him delivered by his number one inspiration, Frank Sinatra, who summed up his view of the younger singer in 1965.

"For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business," Sinatra said. "He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He's the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more."

Contributor: Will Friedwald