US singer Tony Bennett signs an autograph to a record in his loge on march 6, 1988 after the concert at the Stockholm "B�rsen". (Photo by Bernt CLAESSON / PRESSENS BILD / AFP)

Tony Bennett World-famous crooner's indomitable spirit is gone but not forgotten

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Tony Bennett has died aged 96.

Bennett, who had Alzheimer's disease for the last seven years of his life, enjoyed a decades-long career and duets with stars including Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga.

Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926 in Long Island City, Queens, to say he came from humble beginnings would almost be an understatement. His father, a grocer, died when he was 10, leaving his mother, a seamstress, to make dresses for a living during the Great Depression.

Music and art came naturally to a young Bennett. At the age of five, he began drawing chalk pictures on the pavements of his home town in Astoria, and by aged 10 he had started signing, having performed at the opening of the Triborough Bridge.

When he turned 18, he was drafted into the army during the Second World War, an experience that led to him to despise violence. “Fighting is the lowest form of human behaviour,” he wrote in his memoir The Good Life. “It’s amazing to me that with all the great teachers of literature and art, and all the contributions that have been made on this very precious planet, we still haven’t evolved a more humane approach to the way we work out our conflicts.”

After his discharge from the army and return to the US in 1946, Bennett would perform under the stage name Joe Bari. He got his first big break in 1949 when singer Pearl Bailey asked him to be the opening act for her show in Greenwich Village. Comedian and actor Bob Hope, who was there that evening, discovered him while he was performing under the stage name Joe Bari. It was Hope who shortened his given name to Tony Bennett, as it was more memorable, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1950, Bennett signed to Columbia Records, and by 1951, he had released his first major hit, a pop-jazz number called Because of You, which reached No 1 in the Billboard Best Selling Pop Singles chart and stayed there for eight weeks.

In the years that followed, his natural talent, husky baritone vocals and charisma led to his spectacular rise. Whether it was because of his rendition of Cold, Cold Heart, a recording to Blue Velvet or his Rags to Riches, Bennett became a household name.

It did help that he had amassed some pretty big fans along the way. In a 1965 interview with Life magazine, Frank Sinatra said: “For my money, Tony Bennett’s the best in the business," a quote Bennett attributed to his rise in popularity.

“He [Sinatra] was 10 years older than I was and he was my idol, and when he announced that I was his favourite singer, it made all of his fans come and check me out," Bennett said in an interview with the Guardian in 2013. "I've been sold out ever since.”

In 1962, he did a rendition of I Left My Heart in San Francisco, which would go on to become his signature song. But Bennett also suffered through some lows. The 1970s brought with them a lull, as rock 'n' roll took over other music genres resulting in Bennett parting ways with Columbia Records. It led to a time of financial instability for the artist, and he became addicted to drugs.

But if there was one thing that set Bennett aside, it was his ability to bounce back. By 1986, recognising that he needed help, Bennett signed up his son Danny as his manager. Thus began his revival. He resigned to Columbia and shot back into the limelight with music that stuck to his jazz roots.

He became popular with younger audiences, and his 1994 album MTV Unplugged reached platinum record status in the US and in 1995, won Bennett Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.

He will also be fondly remembered by millennials and Gen Z as the musician who became Lady Gaga’s role model, releasing the album Cheek to Cheek – another Grammy Award-winning album.

He also collaborated with major younger artists. Lady Gaga makes an appearance on the 2011 album Duets II, on which Bennett sang with a host of celebrities including John Mayer, Michael Buble, Norah Jones, Carrie Underwood and Amy Winehouse.

The album won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album that year, while Bennet and Amy Winehouse won the Grammy for Best pop duo. The album also earned Bennett, the 85, the title of oldest living musician to debut at No 1 on the Billboard 200.

Age was certainly not a deterrent for the musician who released 60 albums, won 19 Grammys plus one Lifetime Achievement Award and sold 50 million records worldwide throughout his career.

Bennett worked with Lady Gaga again, releasing the collaborative album Cheek to Cheek in 2014.

Even after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 2016 (it was only announced to the public in 2021), Bennett continued to make music and perform.

In fact, in the years after the diagnosis, Bennett worked with Lady Gaga once more on a follow-up album, Love for Sale, which was released in 2021.

Gaga, who was aware of his condition at the time of recording the album, called the project “just another gift he can give to the world”.

He is survived by his wife Susan Crow and four children.

Updated: July 21, 2023, 4:21 PM