Christened, Anthony (Antonio) Dominick Benedetto was born in 1926 and grew up in the streets of Queens, New York City. His father was a grocer and his mother a seamstress. Music was always important to little Antonio who listened to Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, and Joe Venuti. He attended New York's High School of Industrial Arts where he studied music and painting but dropped out at age 16 to help support his family. Later he took a job as a singing waiter in several Italian restaurants. In 1944 Antonio was drafted into the army and served as a replacement infantryman in the U.S. 63rd Infantry Division in France and Germany. He saw action and was involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp near Landsberg. Immediately after he was assigned to an Army military band and sang under the stage name Joe Bari. Here he met many musicians who would have post-war careers. Once demobbed he continued to perform where ever he could and developed an unusual style of phrasing that involved imitating other musicians—such as Stan Getz's saxophone or Art Tatum's piano. In 1949 Pearl Bailey spotted his talent and asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope was in the audience and asked Jo to come on tour but with a new name, an anglified version of his real name. Tony Bennett was signed to Columbia Records in 1950. Tony Bennett began his career as a crooner singing commercial pop tunes with “Because of You", his first hit.
The lush orchestral background was provided by Percy Faith. A second hit followed, this time a cover version of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart", when he sang “Blue Velvet" live his audience mainly young girls would scream.
When he married in 1952 a couple of thousand female fans clad in black gathered outside the ceremony at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral in mock mourning. A year later Tony had his hat trick third with "Rags to Riches". This was up-tempo with a bold, brassy sound and a double tango in the instrumental break.
Tony Bennett began to diversify covering show tunes and his version of "Stranger in Paradise" (Kismet) was an instant hit, making the Queen’s crooner an international hit.
By the mid 50s the singer could see musical tastes were changing and encouraged by his musical director Ralph Sharon, Tony decided to explore jazz (his first love). He brought out a new album entitled Beat of My Heart (1957) which met with critical acclaim and started collaborating with the Count Basie Orchestra. A standout song from this period was Chicago.
By the early 60s he had established a reputation as a cabaret act and TV guest. Although his career was about to come to a temporary halt the singer was recording some of his best works including I Wanna Be Around and "The Good Life." (1963).
A year before Tony had a minor hit with a song written by George Cory and Douglass Cross, and taken from an album of the same name, both the single and album achieved gold record status. The song went on to win a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Tiny won Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on an RIAA/NEA list of the most historically significant Songs of the 20th Century, I left my heart in San Francisco become known as Bennett's signature song.
The British Invasion saw a marked commercial decline for Tony and by the middle of the decade his personal and professional life was in chaos. In the 70s he lost his recording contract and toyed with acting but to no avail. An ill fated record company called Improv did produce of couple memorable jazz orientated albums and the song “What is This Thing Called Love?", but Tony could not sustain the output, and Improv folded.
Further decline followed and Tony again out of contract became a drug addict. Then miraculously the golden tonsil crooner started to claw his way back. Son, Danny signed on as his father's manager and moved Tony back to New York, working the colleges and small theatres. A smart move and Tony now clean was entertaining a new younger audience with standard ballads form the penmanship of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Ralph Sharon and Tony Bennett were reunited and Columbia Records re-signed the singer. By the 80s Tony could not put a foot wrong and had survived to become the last of the originals. Since then he continues to go from strength to strength and is equally at home as a guest on The Simpsons or in Austin Powers’s movie as he is in the studio or on stage. Unplugged was released in 1995 and confirmed the old fellow could match his rock contemporaries. At age 68, Tony Bennett was back.
Worth a listen:
Because of You Tony Bennett (1951)
Rags to Riches Tony Bennett (1953)
Chicago (Count Basie Orchestra) (1957)
I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1962).
Fly Me to the Moon (1965)
The Best Is Yet To Come