Tony Bennett at 96

Performed at Tanglewood with Lady Gaga

By: - Jul 21, 2023

Paired with Lady Gaga it was heart wrenching to see him perform in a TV special. Inflicted with advanced Alzheimer’s she lovingly coaxed him through duets. Right to the end, his voice a ragged, raspy, sand paper instrument, Tony Bennett never lost his swing. Their performances, including one at Tanglewood, crossed generations to pair giants and sustain the magnificence of the Great American Songbook.

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on Aug. 3, 1926, in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, and grew up in that borough in Astoria. His father, Giovanni, had emigrated from Calabria, in southern Italy, at age 11, departing just two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in April 1906. His mother, Anna (Suraci) Benedetto, was born in New York in 1899, having made the sea journey from Italy in the womb. Their marriage was arranged. Giovanni and Anna were cousins; their mothers were sisters.

He won his first two Grammy Awards, for “San Francisco,” in 1963, and his last, for the album “Love for Sale,” with Lady Gaga, last year. Altogether there were 20 of them, including, in 2001, a lifetime achievement award. By some estimates, he sold more than 60 million records.

The producer Mitch Miller signed Bennett to Columbia Records in 1950; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was his first single. Miller was representative of the over produced pop pap of the era. For the corporate approach of Columbia Records, Miller delivered the bottom line of hits. He forced covers and novelty songs on Bennet. But there was no denying the success of the formula. For Miller, who was never noted for insight or taste, the producer was dominant over the artist. You may recall the enervating "Sing Along With Mitch" kitsch.

How different it might have been had Bennett been produced by George Avakian or John Hammond who recorded jazz and blues for Columbia.

By mid-1951, Mr. Bennett had his first No. 1 hit, “Because of You.” That same year, his version of the Hank Williams ballad “Cold, Cold Heart” also hit No. 1; three years after Williams died in 1953,

Other trademark songs followed: “Rags to Riches” in 1953; “Stranger in Paradise,” from the Broadway show “Kismet,” also in 1953; Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Just in Time,” from the show “Bells Are Ringing,” in 1956. That same year, Mr. Bennett was host of his own television variety show, a summer replacement for a similar show that starred another popular Italian American crooner, Perry Como.

Things changed in 1958, when he recorded two albums with the Count Basie band. Jazz fans finally heard him in the context that was meant to be. The standard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was recorded in 1962. He was on top of his game.

The life caught up with him and there were demons to overcome. Two of his marriages ended in divorce. Bennett battled drug and financial problems in the 1970s as rock music took over  and his popularity waned.

“I thought I was singing well. You know, you think you’re doing great, but you’re not,” Bennett told CNN in 1998. “It’s not as great as being sober. I’m higher than anybody right now by being sober because I’m wide awake. I’m completely honest.”

Eventually one of his sons, Danny Bennett, took over as his management. Tony managed to retool and ditched pop to focus on a swinging jazz style.

There was a memorable gig at the Copley Plaza Hotel paired with house pianist Dave McKenna. It was hosted by Ron Della Chiesa of WGBH and taped for PBS. I was among the few invited for the intimate session.

The stripped down pairing and lounge setting was an opportunity to see two giants at their best. While much appreciated in jazz circles McKenna is not widely known. He switched off with Teddy Wilson for months long stints at the Copley.

The pairing was impeccable as McKenna could swing in the manner of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson but with his own driving, delicate touch. It was intriguing to see a bear of a man be so gentle on the keyboard. They were particularly awesome on ballads.

By gestures and body language it was richly evident that Tony was loving every minute of the gig.

As Tony laid it out again there was a statement that artists not gifted with great natural voices make the most of what is given to them. Like the handful of greatest jazz singers he was a master of phrasing, timing and insightful interpretation of lyrics. Comparisons are often made to Sinatra but I think of Bennett more along the lines of Billie Holiday. Her broken, ravaged voice cuts me to pieces. As does Bennett’s.

It was style, phrasing and technique that kept him strong into his 90s. The survivor of an era when swing was king, he earned the admiration of the best of  young generation including Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. In album of duets with various artists Winehouse, a tragic figure, recorded with him shortly before she died.

It was a rare treat to see the late Bennett on stage, writ large, at Tanglewood. It was my last and lasting image of a great American artist.