Legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett long ago quieted critics who said he was a mere variety artist. An incomparable vocal mastery has allowed Bennett to take on all styles with perfect ease. Bennett has left his mark on jazz and is credited with several of its seminal recordings. His full and varied career has included a successful comeback in the early 1990s, when audiences and critics alike rediscovered this musician's unique gifts.
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in New York, the son of immigrant Calabrian parents. He discovered the stage at a tender age of seven and as a teen performed as a singing waiter.
Young Tony attended the High School of Industrial Arts, where he nurtured his passion for painting and singing. After dropping out to help support his family, Benedetto was drafted into the service for the final three months of the Second World War. While in the army, he gave jazz performances for the troops.
On his return to America, he began to sing in nightclubs, and soon he was noticed by Bob Hope, who advised him to drop his first stage name: Joe Bari thus became Tony Bennett.
In the early 1950s, the singer released a series of 45s on the Columbia label. Among his early successes were Because of You, Rags to Riches and the Hank Williams classic, Cold, Cold Heart.
A shift toward jazz
At a time when rock and roll was all the rage, Bennett began to flirt with jazz, and the performances and albums of 1950s bear witness to his abiding love for the genre. On The Beat of My Heart, a 1957 release, he worked with Art Blakey, and two years later he teamed up with Count Basie on In Person! Tony Bennett/Count Basie Orchestra.
His 1962 signature song, I Left My Heart In San Francisco, earned Bennett two Grammy Awards, after which his career took a major leap forward. Several subsequent releases made the hit parade.
The early 1970s marked another turning point. Tastes changed, and the public grew disinterested in artists who, like Bennett, were seen to belong to a bygone era. Bennett quit Columbia and went through a string of record companies before finally starting his own label, Improv, a venture that, unfortunately, was short-lived. This did not prevent Bennett from working on more personal projects, among them a critically acclaimed collaboration with pianist Bill Evans (1975).
A jazz singer?
During the 1980s, Bennett devoted himself mainly to performing. He visited the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal for the first time in 1985, where he gave the opening concert. In the Festival program that year, an article defended the so-called "variety" singer: "Sure-you can say that Tony Bennett is a pop singer, since his songs are popular. But others, Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin among them, also sing popular songs in the jazz idiom," read the piece. "Did John Coltrane, the acknowledged master of free jazz, not base his greatest improvisation on a song from the musical, My Favorite Things?"
Above and beyond stylistic considerations, music lovers agree that Bennett was endowed with one of the most beautiful voices of his generation. He is also a peerless performer who's used an evocative power to put his personal stamp on each of the songs in his repertoire. He reaches into every song, interpreting it in a completely new way.
The 1990s were a serene period for Tony Bennett. Much like Charles Aznavour, the singer seemed to undergo a resurgence. The albums released during this period once again met with popular success. Bennett's tribute album to Frank Sinatra, Perfectly Frank, (1992) captured a Grammy.
A second tribute album followed. Titled Here's to the Ladies (1995), this one was dedicated to jazz divas such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, as well as Barbara Streisand. One year later, Bennett fulfilled a lifelong dream, recording a very personal interpretation of 19 songs made popular by the great Billie Holiday.
On his return to Montreal in 1997, the master of swing performed pieces from the latter album, On Holiday, as well as other bona fide classics from his vast repertoire.
In 2004, Tony Bennett inaugurated the 25th edition of the Festival-an important honour for this living legend. Five years later, he agreed to perform as part of the Festival's 30th anniversary. He returned two years later, a couple of months before releasing the Duets II album. Launched the following year, Viva Duets saw Bennett collaborating with some of today's top Latin artists (Chayanne, Christina Aguilera, Marc Anthony...).
With a career spanning more than five decades and albums sales in the millions, Tony Bennett has earned a place in the pantheon of American popular song, alongside his idols Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.