Tony Bennett, the voice of a generation and crooner behind classics such as "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," died on Friday, July 21 in New York, just two weeks short of his birthday. He was 96.
"Tony left us today," his team confirmed on social media. "But he was still singing the other day at his piano and his last song was, 'Because of You,' his first #1 hit. Tony, because of you we have your songs in our heart forever."
Born on August 3, 1926 in Queens, New York, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was the son of a seamstress and grocer. A lifelong lover of jazz and artists like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, Bennett began singing before the age of 10. By the time he was 13, he was already gigging at Italian restaurants across the borough.
In 1944, he was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Germany to serve during World War II. Upon his return to New York City two years later, Bennett studied at the American Theatre Wing, where he began to hone what would become his signature vocal style. He signed to Columbia Records in 1950, kick-starting his professional singing career.
The crooner's first major hit came one year later in 1951's "Because of You," written by Arthur Hammerstein and Dudley Wilkinson. The decade would also see him release such classics as "Stranger in Paradise," his recording of "Chicago," and the 1953 hit "Rags to Riches," which plays gloriously in the prologue of Martin Scorsese's crime drama, GoodFellas (1990), as the protagonist narrates the story of his vibrant youth.
Still, Bennett reached new heights in 1962 with the release of his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," for which he won his first two Grammy Awards.
In a 1965 Life magazine interview, Frank Sinatra said, "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He's the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more."
Bennett made his film debut in 1966's The Oscar. The drama, from director Russell Rouse, cast Bennet as the best friend of an insufferable actor who only grows more insufferable when he's nominated for an Academy Award. The movie was panned upon its release, and Bennet never starred in another feature. (He did, however, make appearances as himself in 1999's Analyze This, starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal, and in 2003's Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey.)
Bennett enjoyed a late-career resurgence with 2014's Cheek to Cheek, an album of duets with Lady Gaga. At age 88, Bennett broke his own record as the oldest living performer with a No. 1 album on the Billboard chart, and the two toured together in 2015. Gaga, meanwhile, credits Bennet with saving her life.
"Six months ago I didn't even want to sing anymore," Gaga revealed during a 2014 interview with Parade magazine.
"Do you know what Duke Ellington said? He said, 'Number one, don't quit. Number two, listen to number one,'" Bennett responded.
"Right! The other day, Tony said, 'I've never once in my career not wanted to do this.' It stung. Six months ago, I didn't feel that way. I tell Tony every day that he saved my life," Gaga said.
Cheek to Cheek won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, and the two reunited for another album of duets, Love for Sale, in 2021. It would mark the final studio album of Bennett's career. At the age 95 years and 60 days, he broke the Guinness World Record for the oldest artist to release an album of new material.
Across his career of more than 70 years, Bennett released more than 70 albums. He won 19 competitive Grammy Awards with 41 total nominations, won two Emmy Awards, and was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2005.
In 2016, Bennett learned he had Alzheimer's disease, though he continued to perform and record years beyond his diagnosis. "Life is a gift – even with Alzheimer's," he said. The singer's last public performance was in August 2021, when he and Lady Gaga performed at Radio City Music Hall in a show titled One Last Time.
Bennett is survived by his wife, Susan Benedetto; his sons, Danny and Dae; his daughters, Johanna and Antonia Bennett; and his nine grandchildren.