On a hot night in New York in August 2021, on his 95th birthday, singer Tony Bennett performed what will surely be remembered as the most extraordinary concert of his career.
To the delight of an adoring crowd, he flawlessly powered through his biggest hit, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, and standards such as New York, New York and Fly Me to the Moon.
He also duetted with Lady Gaga, whom he greeted with rapturous applause when he took the stage at Radio City Music Hall.
For a 95-year-old to perform a pitch-perfect concerto of this scale and length was quite remarkable. But by then, Bennett had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for five years and was suffering from short-term memory loss.
According to the family, there were occasional moments of clarity but his memory of events, people and places was largely lost. He could barely recognize everyday things.
Yet, when prompted for a tune, he sang along to the folk music that dominated his youth.
His wife Susan said simply: ‘He became himself. He just turned on. It was like a light switch.’
After performing The Lady Is a Tramp with Lady Gaga in 2011, she encouraged the pop star to see herself in a new light.
Yesterday, it was announced that Bennett had died at the age of 96.
That concert in 2021 is surely a fitting conclusion to a record-breaking career that has seen Bennett and his ‘cool’ rediscovered for generations.
This appeal through the ages was perhaps most fully demonstrated by the story of his romance with his third wife, Susan.
His mother Marion was a ‘Tonymaniac’ in the 1950s — one of those teenage fans screamed at by the crooner when he sang lovey-dovey ballads like Because of You.
After Susan was born in 1966, she inherited her mother’s fondness for the singer and became head of Bennett’s local fan club. He met his ideal backstage at a concert when she was 19 — he was 59 — and they married in 2007 despite the age gap.
Bennett said: ‘I can’t say we didn’t notice the 40-year age difference when we met, but we hardly notice it now. We are compatible in many ways and share the same interests. Susan is a wise, mature woman of character and has brought balance and contentment to my life.
‘His righteousness has helped me to think straight, to live well and, I am sure, to live long.’
A 1994 live session with MTV resulted in one of the best-selling albums of his career, MTV Unplugged, which was followed by duets with everyone from Amy Winehouse to Sting, Queen Latifah and Elvis Costello.
His contentment in later life was evident, as was his passion for good works and charitable endeavors. As a result he was sometimes nicknamed ‘Tony Benefit’.
He founded a charity and also created the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Tony’s home borough of Queens in 2001, named after his idol.
But his career was not just a long series of successes. The 1960s also saw a decline with the emergence of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, which pushed him and his jazz repertoire out of circulation. At his lowest ebb, he was addicted to cocaine, short of performing at Vegas supper clubs and heavily in debt. After a near-fatal overdose, he begs his two sons for help — and they guide him, engineering a comeback beyond his wildest dreams.
A 1994 live session with MTV resulted in one of the best-selling albums of his career, MTV Unplugged, which was followed by duets with everyone from Amy Winehouse to Sting, Queen Latifah and Elvis Costello. The New York Times wrote: ‘Tony Bennett didn’t just bridge the generation gap, he broke it.’
The grandson of Italian immigrants, he was born Anthony Dominic Benedetto and grew up poor in Queens, New York. His father died of congestive heart failure when Tony was ten years old, and his mother worked as a seamstress to support Bennett and his two siblings.
Every Sunday the extended Benedetto family would gather to share food and celebrate. Aunts and uncles clapped in time and children sang.
Compared to his friend and mentor Frank Sinatra (left) early in his career, Bennett initially tried to distance himself, but eventually followed a similar path.
Bennett said: ‘It was a warm and wonderful feeling. I get it, it’s normal, the way it’s supposed to be. There was never a touch of loneliness, I didn’t think what was going to happen to me?
‘It’s funny that, in the middle of deep poverty, it was the warmest time of my life.’ He left school at 16 and worked as a copy boy and singing waiter to support his family. In 1944, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the US Army and sent to the front lines as World War II ended.
He said he was bullied for his Italian heritage by some fellow GIs. He was among those who liberated a concentration camp at Landsberg near Dachau.
Back in America, he studied expressive bel canto singing techniques used by opera singers and launched himself as a performer under the stage name Joe Barry.
His habit of improvising ‘conversations’ attracted attention and his break came when Broadway singer Pearl Bailey asked him to perform with her at the Village Inn in Greenwich Village.
Superstar Bob Hope liked her style and not her name, which he felt was not elegant enough. Tony Bennett chose the name Hope.
Signed to Columbia Records, he achieved huge commercial success with the hits Back of You, Blue Velvet and Stranger in Paradise. He performed seven shows a day at the Paramount Theater in New York at the height of his success. In 1956, NBC hired him for its Saturday night television variety show.
ICON: Bennett was still singing at his piano just days before his death, his family revealed, and the final song he performed was his first number one hit, Because Yours
His first album, Cloud 7, had a jazz tinge, and his second, The Beat of My Heart, delved deeper into the genre.
He then released Basie Swings, Bennett Sings with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Bennett was flying. He had further hits in Chicago, I’ve Got the World on a String and in 1962 the song that became his signature, I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
To his delight, he earned the respect and friendship of Frank Sinatra, who said in 1965: ‘For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I see him. He moved me.
‘He’s a singer who conveys what the composer has in mind and maybe a little more.’
They first met at the Paramount Theater in New York and Sinatra helped her with her stage fright.
‘He taught me that the audience is your friend, they come to see you,’ Bennett said.
Although the two men remained close until Sinatra’s death in 1998, Bennett was never part of Sinatra’s ‘Rat Pack’ which included Sinatra himself, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford and was notorious for partying and performing around the clock. Bennett demurred: ‘I had my singing and my painting, and the hours they kept — wow! – It’s just like I wasn’t in that scene.’
On top of this initial success, he married Patricia Beach. And she was quite the catch — 2,000 female fans dressed in black dressed in black gathered outside the ceremony in 1952 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
The couple had sons Danny in 1954 and Degal in 1955.
But The Beatles, and the pop explosion that followed them, came close to killing his career. And Bennett’s professional decline also helped end the marriage — he and Patricia separated in 1965. It was time for a change: his label, Columbia, wanted him to do rock music. The result was 1970’s Tony Sings the Greatest Hits of Today, including a Beatles cover. Legend has it that he vomited the first time he heard the record. She compared her hardships when asked to sing contemporary pop music to her seamstress mother having to make a cheap dress to order.
He left Columbia and set up his own label to release jazz albums — but they didn’t sell.
By then, he was married to actress Sandra Grant, with whom he had two daughters, Joanna and Antonia, but that union also failed. Meanwhile, he was struggling with an addiction to cocaine, which ‘flowed as freely as champagne’ in the Vegas clubs where he was making a living. His label folded, his mother died and the taxman came for his house. In 1979 Bennett ran into a moving bath and was saved from drowning by Sandra.
Starring role: Following his diagnosis, Bennett continued to release a new album with close friend and collaborator Lady Gaga in September 2021.
Tributes poured in for the music legend after his publicist Sylvia Weiner died in his hometown of New York just days before his 97th birthday.
He wrote of the near-death experience in his 2007 memoir, The Good Life: ‘A golden light enveloped me in a warm glow. It was quite peaceful; In fact, I realized I was about to embark on a very compelling journey,’ he said.
‘But suddenly I was jolted out of sight. The tub was overflowing and Sandra was standing over me. She listened to the water for a long time, and when she came in I wasn’t breathing. He hit me in the chest and literally brought me back to life.’
‘I’m lost here,’ he told sons Danny and Dagal for help. It seems people don’t want to listen to the songs I make.’
Danny became his manager, keeping his father on a budget and moving him into a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. He closed the Vegas show and eventually re-signed her to Columbia.
Danny worked to introduce his father to younger audiences, through small shows in college and a cameo on The Simpsons.
His debut album, The Art of Excellence, was successful in 1986 but the turning point came with that 1994 MTV Unplugged session. The resulting album won a Grammy Award.
The album earned Bennett enough money to buy a huge apartment overlooking Central Park and began a renaissance that lasted far longer than his original career.
Danny said: ‘We couldn’t like Tony Bennett. We just put him in places that were good.’
Singers Celine Dion and Tony Bennett pose backstage during a Sinatra tribute concert in Las Vegas in 2015
Dean Martin (left) appears with singer Tony Bennett on Martin’s Show circa 1965
During his exciting reinvention and many subsequent duets and collaborations, the rule was always that anyone he would sing with had to be his music.
Bennett commented: ‘I don’t want to discount financial security but when you can finally be yourself, that’s the height of success. Hank Williams, he was himself. Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney – they were themselves.’
He unlocked sides of artists they didn’t realize they had. After performing The Lady Is A Tramp with Lady Gaga in 2011, she encouraged the pop star to see herself in a new light.
‘The fact that Tony sees me as a natural-born jazz singer is still something I haven’t achieved,’ he said.
Their 2014 album of standards, Cheek to Cheek, was a No. 1 hit. The follow-up, Love for Sale, was recorded in sessions between 2018 and 2020, during which he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In a documentary released alongside the album, Gaga was seen crying while singing in the studio, with Bennett responding uncertainly to her requests about their previous recording history.
He confirmed that he would call her ‘lover’ whenever they met in the studio for the past few years, apparently unsure of his name.
But when she walked on stage that night in New York in 2021, she exclaimed: ‘Wow! Lady Gaga.’
He said: ‘I had to keep it together, because we had a sold-out show and I had a job. But I’ll tell you, when I got on that stage and he said “Lady Gaga”, my friend saw me and it was so special.’
It was, indeed, an enchanting moment, and a perfectly fitting end to a career full of magic.