Tony Bennett Survives In Style
Tony Bennett is a survivor. Today he stands tall as the one major survivor of an earlier era of pop music and singing – the man whom Frank Sinatra once proclaimed "the best singer in the business."
Born in Queens, New York, on August 3, 1926 as Anthony Dominick Benedetto, Tony began performing informally at a young age – his family would put him in the middle of a circle with his brother John and his sister Mary, and encourage them to perform. "I’d clown around," he says. "I used to imitate Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, and everyone would laugh."
Growing up during the Depression of the Thirties was something he took in stride, but he started working at a young age, becoming a singing waiter at 14, and he entered local amateur talent contests to earn small prizes. During World War II he sang with military bands, and he appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the national radio show.
Bennett made his first known recording in April, 1949, using his first stage name, Joe Bari – a 78 rpm single for the Leslie label, owned by George Simon. The single consisted of "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Vieni Qui," the latter written by Simon. Bob Hope heard him performing at a New York nightclub with Pearl Bailey in 1950, and immediately booked him for Hope’s show at the Paramount Theatre. Bob made the key suggestion that he should change his name from "Joe Bari" to the more natural "Tony Bennett." And his rendition of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" at the Paramount caught the attention of Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller. On April 17th, 1950, he recorded that song for Columbia and it became Bennett’s first major-label release.
Bennett was a child of the big band era and swing music. His teacher, Miriam Spier, taught him to listen to instrumentalists rather than singers for inspiration. He loved the music of Tommy Dorsey and his band’s singer, Frank Sinatra. He loved jazz and Duke Ellington, and was stunned and amazed by his first experience of hearing Charlie ("Bird") Parker play. "I was so close, his sax was practically stuck up my nose. I had never heard anything that great – a tremendous velocity of musicianship."
Bennett is not and never was a jazz singer, however. He does not improvise. But he likes to perform with jazz musicians, and he knows how to turn a phrase with a jazz rhythm. His pianist and musical director since the Fifties has been Ralph Sharon, a musician who came out of jazz, and Bennett’s influences include legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum (from whom he picked up ideas on phrasing and breathing), and singers Mildred Bailey (for her relaxed delivery), Billie Holiday, and Sinatra.
Bennett’s career took off quickly. In 1951 his "Because Of You" became the year’s biggest hit, topping the charts for thirty-one weeks. Other major hits of that era included "Rags To Riches," and a pioneering cover of Hank Williams’ "Cold, Cold Heart," which also dominated the charts for many weeks. His hit singles allowed him the latitude to get more adventurous with his albums, and he made LPs in the Fifties with The Count Basie Orchestra, Ralph Burns, Bobby Hackett, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. He made one album, The Beat of My Heart, with jazz drummers Chico Hamilton, Art Blakey and Joe Jones, as well as trumpeter Nat Aderley, flautist Herbie Mann, saxophonist Al Cohn, trombonist Kai Winding, and bassist Milt Hinton – all major jazz musicians at that time.
Songs like "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" got him through the early rock ‘n’ roll era unscathed, but by the late Sixties his record sales were declining and Columbia tried unsuccessfully to push him in a more trendy direction. In 1972, his career touching bottom, Bennett left Columbia. He spent a brief period with the MGM label, and made several albums for his own label, Improv, as well as for DRG and Fantasy, collaborating with traditional-jazz musician Ruby Braff, with Marian and Jimmy McPartland, and making two duet albums, now highly regarded, with pianist Bill Evans.
From 1979 to 1986 he had no recording contract and allowed some bitterness about the dominance of rock to surface in his interviews. His 1998 autobiography, The Good Life, reveals that when he moved to Hollywood in the Seventies he got into drugs. "At every big party I’d go to, people were high on something," he writes. "Cocaine flowed as freely as champagne, and soon I began joining the festivities. At first it seemed like the hip thing to do, but as time went on it got harder and harder to refuse it when it was offered. The whole thing started sneaking up on me." It got worse in the late Seventies when his mother died, and he had problems with both his second wife, Sandra, and the IRS, which was looking for back taxes. "I found I was using drugs to ease my pain."
In 1979 "I overindulged and quickly realized I was in trouble." After he passed out in his bathtub Sandra found him – and he wasn’t breathing. "She pounded on my chest and literally brought me back to life." That was enough for Bennett -- he regained control of his life. But his career was on hold. His son Danny took over his management and re-signed Bennett with Columbia in 1986, and Bennett did The Art of Excellence for the label.
Bennett’s career then took a remarkable turn. Simply because he did not go with the latest trends in music, but held on stubbornly and iconoclastically to the older repertoire of popular songs, he became a hero to a new and younger audience, for whom he became a unique symbol. This was solidly cemented by his appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1993 – and the hit album which resulted from it. Today Bennett enjoys greater popularity than ever, with whole new generations of fans, most of whom were yet to be born when he had his first hits.
Fans of Bennett may not be aware that he is also a talented artist. He signs his works with his original name, Anthony Benedetto, and they include paintings, watercolors and pastels. Galleries sell his original works for $10,000 and up; lithographs run between $1,000 and $2,000 apiece, although I’ve seen some signed lithographs auctioned for less than $200.