HomeTop StoriesTony Bennett, masterful stylist of American music standards, dies at age 96

Tony Bennett, masterful stylist of American music standards, dies at age 96

NEW YORK (AP) — Tony Bennett, the eminent and timeless stylist whose dedication to classic American songs and talent for creating new standards like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” graced a decades-long career that brought him admirers from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga, passed away Friday. He was 96, just two weeks before his birthday.

Publicist Sylvia Weiner confirmed Bennett’s death to The Associated Press, saying he died in his hometown of New York. There was no specific cause, but Bennett had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

The last of the great saloon singers of the mid-20th century, Bennett often said his lifelong ambition was to “create a hit catalog rather than hit records”. He released more than 70 albums, earning him 19 competitive Grammys – all but two after he reached his sixties – and enjoyed deep and lasting affection from fans and fellow artists.

Bennett did not tell his own story during the performance; instead he let the music do the talking – the Gershwins and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Unlike his friend and mentor Sinatra, he interpreted a song rather than embodying it. When his singing and public life lacked the high drama of Sinatra’s, Bennett appealed to an easy, courtly manner and an unusually rich and enduring voice—”A tenor who sings like a baritone,” he called himself—that made him a master at caressing a ballad or brightening up an uptempo number.

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“I enjoy entertaining the audience, making them forget about their problems,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “I think people… are touched when they hear something that’s sincere and honest and maybe has a little sense of humor. … I just like making people feel good when I perform.”

Bennett was often praised by his peers, but never more meaningful than what Sinatra said in a 1965 Life magazine interview: “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He turns me on when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who conveys what the composer has in mind, and probably a little bit more.”

Not only did he survive the rise of rock music, but he endured so long and so well that he gained new fans and collaborators, some young enough to be his grandchildren. In 2014, at age 88, Bennett broke his own record as the oldest living artist with a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart for “Cheek to Cheek,” his duet project with Lady Gaga. Three years earlier, he topped the charts with “Duets II,” featuring contemporary stars such as Gaga, Carrie Underwood, and Amy Winehouse, in her final studio recording. His bond with Winehouse was documented in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Amy,” in which Bennett patiently encouraged the insecure young singer through a performance of “Body and Soul.”

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His latest album, the 2021 release “Love for Sale,” featured duets with Lady Gaga on the title track, “Night and Day,” and other Porter songs.

For Bennett, one of the few artists who could switch between pop and jazz with ease, such collaborations were part of his crusade to introduce new audiences to what he called the Great American Songbook.

“No country has given the world such great music,” Bennett said in a 2015 interview with Down Beat Magazine. “Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern. Those songs will never die.”

Ironically, his most famous contribution came from two unknowns, George Cory and Douglass Cross, who gave Bennett his signature song in the early ’60s at a time when his career was in a slump. They gave Bennett’s musical director, pianist Ralph Sharon, some sheet music which he put in a dresser drawer and forgot about until he was packing for a tour that included a stop in San Francisco.

“Ralph saw some sheet music in his shirt drawer… and on top of the stack was a song called ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco.’ Ralph thought it would be good material for San Francisco,” Bennett said. “We were rehearsing and the bartender at the club in Little Rock, Arkansas said, ‘If you record that song, I’ll be the first one to buy it.'”

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Released in 1962 as the B-side of the single “Once Upon a Time,” the reflective ballad became a grassroots phenomenon that remained on the charts for more than two years and earned Bennett his first two Grammys, including Record of the Year.

In his early forties, he seemed out of fashion. But after turning 60, an age when even the most popular performers settle for pleasing their older fans, Bennett and his son and manager, Danny, found creative ways to market the singer to the MTV generation. He made cameo appearances on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ and became a famous guest performer on ‘The Simpsons’. He donned a black T-shirt and sunglasses as a host with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards, and his own video of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” from his Grammy-winning Fred Astaire tribute album landed on MTV’s snazzy “Buzz Bin.”


AP National Writer Hillel Italy contributed to this story.

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