The Inimitable Tony Bennett
Always nattily dressed and with a velvety voice that made women swoon, Tony Bennett had a love affair with his audiences that was both magical and reciprocal. But the singer’s influence extended well beyond his musical talents. He was a civil rights activist and humanitarian whose kindness and mentorship lifted up and inspired those who knew him.
Cool. Suave. Adored by a cascade of generations of fans and superstars who collaborated with him, respected him and considered him their mentor. Everyone from Miles Davis to John Mayer, Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga were thrilled and open to musically collaborating with Tony Bennett, who died on July 21, 2023, following a seven-year struggle with Alzheimer’s. He was 96. A 20-time Grammy Award-winner, Bennett had also been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award and held two Primetime Emmys.
There are not many people who can claim this level of acclaim, especially in light of the great star- studded leaps the world has taken musically over the past 70 years, but crooner Bennett easily held that level of importance.
“Tony was smooth; he was always impeccably dressed,” says Eric Alper, Canadian music correspondent, blogger, publicist and SiriusXM radio host. “He always wore a tailored suit, a crisp white shirt and tie, with never a hair out of place. He was just this tall, handsome, suave guy who sang. Of course, growing up in New York City and having the ability to sing in Italian would have undoubtedly made all the women swoon.”
Alper saw Bennett in concert at Roy Thomson Hall in 2015 and says that one of the things he remembers most about that night is the last song Bennett sang, “Rags to Riches,” which he performed a cappella and without a microphone.
“It is impossible to imagine 2,000 people more engaged in rapt silence,” says Alper. “Not only did he look and sound great at 88 years old, Tony’s performance was just an absolutely wild thing to experience.”
His relevance and ability to stick around for seven decades – through turning points in history that would forever change the world, including John F. Kennedy being elected America’s first Irish- Catholic president, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War, Roe v. Wade, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the World Wide Web – is a testament to longevity and relevance that few can claim title to.
“Tony always stuck to his lane – he never went disco or adopted any of the other fads that were popular at certain times,” Alper says. “He performed the Great American Songbook classics throughout the years, with the arrangements always sounding like him. You were always guaranteed the same sound with Tony, even across the many collaborations he did with other artists.”
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto – “Benedetto” means “the blessed one” in Italian – his velvet voice was akin to the Holy Grail of divine mastery.
In fact, in 1965, the ultimate swoon-maker himself, Frank Sinatra, told Life Magazine:
“For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. 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.”
Committed to the civil rights movement, Bennett walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Marches to protest the blocking of Black Americans’ right to vote in the Jim Crow American South.
The host of luminaries for whom Bennett performed included Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton at the White House, and Queen Elizabeth II at her 50th-Anniversary Jubilee at Buckingham Palace. The singer was also a strong advocate for Black artists in the music industry and eventually went on to receive the Citizen of the World Award and the Humanitarian Award from the United Nations.
“HE WAS THE GREATEST GRANDMOTHER AND THE GREATEST GRANDFATHER ROLLED INTO ONE.”
Of course Tony Bennett was human, with all of the foibles that come with that. Along with his second wife, actress Sandra Grant, Bennett moved his family to Los Angeles in 1974, at which time the singer got heavily involved with alcohol and cocaine. Significantly in debt, including to the IRS for millions of dollars, the singer suffered a near- fatal cocaine overdose before realizing that he had hit his personal rock bottom.
“His oldest son, Danny, stepped up to take control of both his father’s career and his well-being,” Alper says. “The first thing that Danny did was book an appearance for Tony on the MTV Unplugged special in 1994, and while the MTV audience at that time weren’t looking for a performer like Tony – who was 68 at the time – the viewers connected with him. This resulted in another 40 years of coolness and hipness for Tony.”
It didn’t hurt that popular guests on the special included artists like Elvis Costello and k.d. lang.
Lady Gaga’s collaborations with Bennett brought the singer a a whole new level of visibility and viability as well, one that was both genuine and adoring.
Several days after the singer passed away, Lady Gaga shared her feelings on social media about her special relationship and friendship with Bennett.
She talked about the effects that Bennett’s mentorship had had on both her music and her perspective on life, encouraging her to look at life through a positive lens, which helped keep her spirits rooted in gratitude.
Lady Gaga also acknowledged that even though there was an age difference of 50 years between Bennett and her, that age difference served as an inspiration to them both because they were able to bring two entirely different viewpoints, two different life stages, to the experiences that they shared together. She acknowledged that it was hard watching Bennett endure the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s, but at every turn what Lady Gaga stressed was how very much she loved and celebrated singing with her cherished friend, Tony Bennett.
Bennett was known for his personalized, jazz-influenced, simple interpretations of melodies, and there weren’t many who were unfamiliar with the singer’s singular interpretations of classics such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or “The Way You Look Tonight.”
“None of Tony’s songs were really about the lyrics,” Alper says. “They were more about the deeper meanings and nuances, the yearning for happier times.”
Along with supporting a host of charities, Bennett and his third wife, Susan Benedetto, founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in 1999, a high school focused on the arts.
This is both relevant and fitting because Bennett was an accomplished visual artist himself, working in watercolour, oil paint and charcoal.
“He was a master of his craft; there are just no other words to describe his talent,” says Alper.
A fine tribute to a much-loved and respected man who once stated that he most wanted to be remembered as a “nice person.”