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In Memoriam: Tony Bennett

July 21, 2023


The last time Tony Bennett took the stage was in 2021, when he appeared with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. The show was titled “One Last Time.” When he passed today at the age of 96, I felt the need pay him a tribute “One Last Time.” Although I didn’t know Mr. Bennett personally, he was a key member of our collective New York Italian cultural family. I’m guessing almost every family of Italian descent felt the same way. He was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on 3 August 1926, a member of what would become known as the “Greatest Generation.” Like many other members of his generation, Mr. Bennett fought in the final stages of World War II as a U.S. Army infantryman in the European Theater. Like many other GIs, Mr. Bennett had a difficult time finding work when he returned home. According to journalist Matt Schudel, “Mr. Bennett held a series of odd jobs — elevator operator, grocery delivery boy, singing waiter — while using the GI Bill to study voice at the American Theatre Wing, the organization that sponsors the Tony Awards.”[1]


Realizing that Anthony Benedetto might be too long for a stage name, Schudel reports, “He was working under the name Joe Bari in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope invited him to be his opening act at New York’s Paramount Theater.” According to Schudel, “Just before the young singer went onstage, Hope asked him what his real name was. ‘He thought a moment,’ Mr. Bennett told the New Yorker in 1974, ‘and said, “We’ll call you Tony Bennett,” and went out on the stage and introduced me.’ Hope also gave him another piece of advice: Always walk onstage with a smile.” It was a smile he never lost. Freelance writer Chris Morris reports, “His peer Frank Sinatra called him the greatest popular singer in the world.”[2] Although he lived most of his life in New York, one of Mr. Bennett’s biggest hits, and his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which he recorded in 1962.


During his lifetime, Mr. Bennett amassed many accolades, including 20 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. He was named an NEA Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree, and was the founder of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens, New York. Journalist Bruce Weber reports, “A lifelong liberal Democrat, Mr. Bennett participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965, and, along with Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and others, performed at the Stars for Freedom rally on the City of St. Jude campus on the outskirts of Montgomery on March 24, the night before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the address that came to be known as the ‘How Long? Not Long’ speech.”[3] Despite his political leanings, his music was non-partisan. He performed for every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama. He probably would have continued his presidential performances had he not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Over the course of his career, Mr. Bennett sold more than 50 million records worldwide. He cut his last number 1 best-selling album at the age of 85. He became famous for his late-in-life duets and artists clamored to be invited to sing with him. Among the artists who had that special opportunity were: Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Bono, Celine Dion, George Michael, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Sting, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, John Legend, Michael Bublé, The Chicks, Tim McGraw, Juanes, k.d. Lang, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, Queen Latifah, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Faith Hill, John Mayer, Josh Groban, Alejandro Sanz, Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga.


Like many people in the music industry, Mr. Bennett had his dark times; nevertheless, his ability to bridge generations and genres with his music remains unprecedented. Journalist Neil Shah explains, “By putting his son, Danny, in charge of his business and taking adventurous steps that appealed to younger listeners — an ‘MTV Unplugged’ album, for example — Bennett in the late 1980s and 1990s experienced one of the strongest comebacks in popular music history.”[4] Shah goes on to note, “Whereas Sinatra, whom Bennett greatly admired, often put distance between himself and his audience, Bennett’s warm personality and soaring, jubilant voice closed the gap. It was in part Bennett’s careful, intelligent selection of the standards he chose to interpret that helped him forge such a long-lasting career.” In addition to being a gifted singer, Mr. Bennett was also a talented painter. Schudel reports, “He often painted in his home studio overlooking Central Park, signing his works ‘Benedetto’.”


Had Don McClean’s iconic song “American Pie” been written when Mr. Bennett began singing career, he might have adopted one of its stanzas as his motto. That stanza reads:


A long, long time ago, I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while


He had his chance and made us dance and he made us smile. Mr. Bennett made us want to put on the Ritz, step out in style, and, most of all, smile. His grace, talent, and generosity will be greatly missed.


[1] Matt Schudel, “Tony Bennett, singing star with an enduring second act, dies at 96,” The Washington Post, 21 July 2023.
[2] Chris Morris, “Tony Bennett, Master Pop Vocalist, Dies at 96,” Variety, 21 July 2023.
[3] Bruce Weber, “Tony Bennett, Champion of the Great American Songbook, Is Dead at 96,” The New York Times, 21 July 2023.
[4] Neil Shah, “Tony Bennett, Crooner Who Bridged Genres and Generations, Dies at 96,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 July 2023.

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