Singer. Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, on August 3, 1926, in Queens, New York. Bennett grew up in a poor family, in circumstances made more difficult by the Depression and by the death of his father when he was nine. While he attended the High School for the Industrial Arts in New York City, Bennett began working as a singing waiter. After serving in the Army infantry during World War II, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and studied singing and acting at the American Theatre Wing. During this period his vocal coach Mimi Spear offered some advice that he took to heart: don't imitate other singers, emulate instrumentalists instead.
The young singer was discovered by Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village and subsequently hired by Bob Hope in 1949. Hope advised him to take the name Tony Bennett (rather than the name he had been using, Jim Bari) and put him in his road show. Bennett told Billboard in 1997, "I've been on the road ever since." He signed with Columbia Records in 1950 and started working with record producer Mitch Miller. His early hits included "Rags To Riches," "Because of You," and "Stranger in Paradise." His most famous song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," was released in 1962 as a B-side on a single; it also earned Bennett his first Grammy award.
Bennett's success led to some artistic differences between the singer and his record company. His interest in singing quality material made him want to try new songs and new kinds of music. Columbia, however, wanted to repeat the style of his early hits. For some time, Bennett and Miller compromised by each selecting one half of the material to be recorded. After 20 years of recording with Columbia, however, he was told not to do any new songs. Company management wanted Bennett to cover top ten hits. Soon thereafter, Bennett ended his relationship with the company, formed his own label, and recorded on others. Bennett ended up taking a long hiatus from recording, staying away from the studios for some ten years before he made the 1986 album The Art of Excellence.
Bennett's break from recording coincided with some difficult times for the singer. He moved to California in the late 1970s and began using cocaine and marijuana, drugs that were an integral part of the celebrity party scene. A near death experience passing out in the bath tub and the memory of Lenny Bruce's drug-related death scared Bennett into changing his habits. Bennett was also struggling with a change in the public's taste in popular music, with the increased dominance of rock and roll. When he began his career, pop music appealed to all ages. Bennett asserts that young listeners were being taught that rock music belonged exclusively to their generation and that this alienated children from their parents. Moreover, music marketing was so focused on young listeners, that it was the squeezing adults who bought Bennett's albums out of the record stores.
Bennett has weathered such troubles and completely revitalized his career. He credits his son Danny, who is now his manager, with making many key decisions. Danny put Bennett on television, on the animated series The Simpsons, on talk shows with David Letterman and Jay Leno, and on MTV Unplugged. The last appearance earned the singer a flock of young fans. He now has a recording contract with Columbia that allows him to simply turn in his finished record, with no corporate input on content. Among Bennett's later recordings are the Grammy-winning MTV Unplugged; a series of tribute albums, Bennett/Berlin (Irving Berlin), Perfectly Frank (as in Sinatra), Tony Bennett on Holiday (Billy Holiday), Here's to the Ladies (miscellaneous female singers); and the children's album The Playground. These recordings demonstrate that Bennett still has plenty of ideas about the music he wants to sing, and that he is in fine form. With a half-century of professional singing under his belt, Bennett credits learning bel canto technique with preserving his voice; he told Billboard, "it teaches you how to breathe properly and how to sing so that you don't push and you don't destroy your voice."
During the 1990s Bennett published two books that gave fans an inside look into his personal life and career. Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen (1996) is a coffee table book of his paintings, exhibiting a very serious pastime for a man who once aspired to be a painter. His autobiography The Good Life (1998) details his childhood, singing career, personal life, and friendships. Signing his name Anthony Benedetto, he began showing his paintings in 1977 and has since sold his work for as much as $40,000 a canvas. What My Heart Has Seen includes a number of portraits of famous people, as well as still-lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes that are dominated by scenes of New York and San Francisco.
© Biography Resource Center, 2001 Gale Group