Tony Bennett is an artist who moves the hearts and touches the souls of audiences. He’s not just the singer’s singer but also an international treasure honored by the United Nations with its Citizen of the World award, which aptly describes the scope of his accomplishments.
The son of a grocer and Italian-born immigrant, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926, in the Astoria section of Queens, New York. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he nurtured his dual passions, singing and painting. His boyhood idols included Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, both big influences on Bennett’s easy, natural singing style. Tony sang while waiting tables as a teenager then performed with military bands throughout his overseas Army duty during World War II. After the war, the GI Bill enabled him to study vocal technique at the American Theatre Wing School. The first time he sang in a nightclub was 1946 when he sat in with trombonist Tyree Glenn at the Shangri-La in Astoria.
Tony’s big break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope noticed him working with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village. As he recalls, “Bob Hope came down to check out my act. He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’ But first he told me he didn’t care for my stage name (Joe Bari) and asked me what my real name was. I told him, ‘My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto,’ and he said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.’ And that’s how it happened. A new Americanized name, the start of a wonderful career and a glorious adventure that has continued for sixty years.”
With worldwide record in the millions, and dozens of platinum and gold albums to his credit, Tony has received thirteen Grammy Awards as well as the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The MTV generation first took Tony Bennett to heart during his appearance with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the 1993 MTV Video Awards. He appeared on MTV Unplugged and the resulting recording of the same name garnered him the top Grammy Award for Album of the Year. “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap,” observed The New York Times, “he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises.” Bennett credits his eldest son and manager, Danny, for his success in capturing a whole new generation of listeners.
His initial fame came via a string of Columbia singles in the early 1950s, including such chart-toppers as “Because of You,” “Rags To Riches” and a cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” He had place two-dozen songs in the Top 40, including “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” and his signature hit, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which earned him two Grammy Awards. Tony Bennett is one of a handful of artists to have new albums chart in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and into the new millennium. He introduced a multitude of songs into the Great American Songbook that have since become pop music standards. He has toured the world to sold out audiences, winning rave reviews whenever he performs. Tony re-signed with Columbia Records in 1986 and released the critically acclaimed The Art Of Excellence. Since his show-stopping performance of “When Do the Bells Ring for Me,” from his Astoria album, at the 1991 Grammy Awards, he has been awarded Grammys for Steppin’ Out, Perfectly Frank, MTV Unplugged, Playin’ with My Friends, The Art of Romance and Duets: An American Classic. In celebration of his unparalleled contributions to popular music, Columbia/Legacy assembled Forty Years: The Artistry Of Tony Bennett. The four-CD boxed set, released in 1991, chronicled the singer’s stellar recording career and documents his growth as an artist inspiring Time magazine to call the collection “… the essence of why CD boxed sets are a blessing.” Recently, thanks to Tony’s remarkable career longevity, the set has been updated and expanded, with the title changed from Forty Years to Fifty Years.
Tony Bennett became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2005, and was named an NEA Jazz Master in January of 2006. Last year, he was named the recipient of Billboard magazine’s elite Century Award, in honor of his outstanding contributions to music.
Tony has received an Emmy Award and a Cable Ace Award for his groundbreaking television special, Live By Request...Tony Bennett, which featured a unique interactive format in which the viewing audience called in song requests during the program, a concept created by Bennett that has become a regular special on the A&E network. Tony has also authored three books: What My Heart Has Seen, a beautifully bound edition of his paintings published in 1996; The Good Life, his heartfelt autobiography released in 1998; and Tony Bennett In the Studio, a sumptuous salute to his dual career as singer and painter, published last year.
Tony is a dedicated painter whose interest in art began as a child. He continues to paint every day, even while touring internationally. He has exhibited his work in galleries around the world, and was chosen to be the official artist of the 2001 Kentucky Derby, creating two paintings in celebration of the iconic event. The United Nations has commissioned two paintings from him, including one for its 50th anniversary. His original painting “Homage to Hockney” is on permanent display at the Butler Institute of American Art, and the celebrated National Arts Club in New York is home to his “Boy on Sailboat, Sydney Bay.” Most recently, his oil painting “Central Park” was accepted to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum’s permanent collection in Washington, DC.
Throughout his career, Tony Bennett has always put his heart and time into humanitarian concerns. He has raised millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, which established a research fund in his name. His original paintings each year grace the cover of the American Cancer Society’s holiday greeting card, proceeds from which are earmarked for cancer research. He is active in environmental concerns and has performed at fundraisers for both the Walden Woods Foundation and the Save the Rainforest Foundation. The Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta bestowed upon him their “Salute to Greatness Award” for his efforts to fight discrimination. The United Nations presented him with their 2007 Humanitarian Award.
In honor of one of his greatest friends and staunchest supporters, Tony conceived and spearheaded the establishment of the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts, which opened its doors as a New York City public high school, offering an extensive arts curriculum, in September of 2001. A permanent site for the school, designed by famed architects Polshek Partners, will open in Spring 2009 in Bennett’s hometown of Astoria, Queens, adjacent to the Kaufman Astoria Studios complex. With his wife Susan, they founded Exploring the Arts, which supports the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts and provides support to arts education in public schools.
In the 1950s, thousands of screaming bobbysoxers surrounded the Paramount Theatre in New York, held back only by police barricades, to see their singing idol Tony Bennett. Today the children and grandchildren of those fans are providing equally ardent in their worship of him. Perhaps what sums up Tony’s legacy and longevity best is an observation made in The New York Times’ review of MTV Unplugged: “What accounts for the Bennett magic? Artistry certainly. The repertory is indeed classic…. But perhaps more important is his ability to convey a sense of joy, of utter satisfaction, in what he is doing.”