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Tony Bennett
Produced by Greg Fitzgerald

Tony Bennett  

Tony Bennett could easily be called one of the best friends the great American songbook has ever had. For over 50 years, he's interpreted the works of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and Irving Berlin, among others, with a unique imagination and passion that has endeared him to millions of fans the world over.

Listen to Tony describe how he approaches songs

Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 13, 1926, in Astoria, New York, Bennet grew up a child of the Great Depression. Listening to the music of singers like Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, he knew where he wanted to be.

Listen to Tony recount his early attempts at singing


Pearl Bailey  

As a young man with a mission, Tony did everything from sing as a waiter to perform with the American Forces Network orchestra. In 1949, he got his first break when singer Pearl Bailey (left) asked him to open for her in Greenwich Village. She also invited comedian Bob Hope to the show.

Listen to Tony recall his first big break

Hope was so impressed with Tony's performance that he took him under his wing. He convinced Bennett to shorten his name and by the time he recorded his first demo album, Anthony Benedetto had become Tony Bennett. The demo found its way to Mitch Miller, who signed him to the Columbia label.

Listen to Mitch Miller recall the first time he heard Tony sing

While Bennett was signing on Columbia Records' esteemed roster, superstar crooner Frank Sinatra was just leaving the label due to the ever-popular "creative differences." A young, impressionable Bennett thought Columbia was looking for another Sinatra, but he was quickly advised to stop imitating "Old Blue Eyes" and develop a style of his own.

Listen to Miller recall the advice he gave Tony regarding singing like Sinatra

Tony performed commercial pop tunes such as "Blue Velvet," "Rags to Riches," and "Stranger in Paradise" at sold-out concerts to screaming teenage fans. His pianist and musical director Ralph Sharon saw the short shelf-life of such bubblegum material and urged Tony to record a jazz album of more lasting power.

Listen to Tony tell the advice Sharon gave him regarding pop vs. jazz

Tony's 1957 album, Beat of My Heart, changed his sound forever. Accompanied by some of top drummers and percussionists in jazz -- Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Candido, and Chico Hamilton -- and other high-profile musicians like Herbie Mann, Milt Hinton, and Nat Adderley, the ambitious concept-album was a hit.

Count Basie  

Bennett followed up by teaming with Count Basie (left) and his well-known orchestra. Tony became the first male pop star to ever sing with Basie's band. In 1958, Roulette released Basie Swings, Bennett Sings, which featured the classics "Chicago" and "Jeepers Creepers."

Listen to Joe Williams, who was also a singer for Basie's band at that time, describe Tony's contributions to the Basie orchestra


I need two lifetimes. I'll never get it finished. I have that many creative ideas about what I'd like to do and what I'd like to learn.

-- Tony Bennett  

In June 1962, Tony held one of his most successful concert performances at Carnegie Hall. He brought together some of the best musicians available including saxophonist Al Cohn, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and percussionist Candido along with the Ralph Sharon Trio.

There was a huge media build up leading to the Carnegie Hall concert. It became a turning point in Bennett's career and helped cement his artistic credibility as not just a singer, but an international superstar.

Listen to Tony reflect on his historic Carnegie Hall concert

Tony produced many hits for the Columbia label, but then the music industry started to shift with the changing musical trends. By the start of the 1970s, rock acts such as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and The Beatles had all but taken over. Columbia wanted Tony to sing tunes made hits by rock groups; the pressure was on for him to keep up.

Listen to Tony's son and manager, Danny Bennett, describe the pressure record companies put on jazz artists to sing current pop tunes


Bill Evans  

Eventually Tony left the Columbia label and moved to England, where he performed at consistently sold-out concerts. He recorded sparsely during this time, but he did make two great albums, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Together Again, with legendary pianist Bill Evans.

Listen to Bill Evans (left) share his admiration for Tony's singing

In 1979, Tony's son, Danny, became his manager and took advantage of every opportunity to get his father exposed to a younger audience. Over the next several years, Danny arranged for his father to appear on shows such as The Simpsons, The Late Show with David Letterman, and on the young cable channel MTV.

Listen to Tony tell how his son helped revive his career


In 1986, Tony re-signed with Columbia -- this time with more creative freedom. In 1992, Columbia released the Grammy-winning, Perfectly Frank, a collection of songs popularized by Frank Sinatra. Two years later, Tony won the Grammy for "Best Album of the Year" with MTV Unplugged.

Now in his mid-seventies, Tony Bennett has a revitalized his career and is now more popular among a wider audience of fans than ever. In 2001, Columbia released Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues, which featured a cast of superstars including Stevie Wonder, k.d. Lang, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, and Ray Charles.

Listen to Tony reflect on his five-decade career



SHOW PLAYLIST

View the Tony Bennett show playlist

NPR RESOURCES

Listen to an NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album

OTHER RESOURCES

  • The Official Tony Bennett Web Site