Tony Bennett: The Crooner Who Left His Heart With You, Not San Francisco

Tony Bennett: The Crooner Who Left His Heart With You, Not San Francisco

Twenty Grammy awards over nearly a century of living. Tony Bennett, the singer loved not just in America but across the world, didn’t leave his heart in San Francisco as his most famous song suggests, but actually with fans everywhere who regarded him as the “other Frank Sinatra”.

Just ten days short of his 97th birthday, Bennett breathed his last on July 21, 2023, after a singing career that began in the 1950s and continued to flourish well into the 2000s thanks to his manager-son Danny, who marketed him to the younger generation, and Lady Gaga — the new age diva who partnered him on a world tour that brought immense benefits to both.

“It’s still one of the most impressive flexes I’ve ever seen a musician pull off live — and at the age of 88, no less,”  Lindsay Zoladz wrote in the New York Times, referring to the third of four sold-out shows featuring Bennett and Gaga at Radio City Music Hall in 2015.

The two were sharing the bill, promoting their chart-topping, cross-generational 2014 duets album, “Cheek to Cheek.” They had a light, snappy chemistry on the songs they sang together — Zoladz noted — but the best parts of the night were their solo sets, each inviting their respective fan bases — Bennett’s tasteful traditionalists and Gaga’s sartorially zany but spiritually sincere Little Monsters — into the other’s world.


Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga onstage during the 2015 Grammys. The two won a Grammy in 2022 for their album of Cole Porter covers, “Love for Sale.”Credit…Larry Busacca/Getty Images For Naras (Reproduced from the New York Times)

For most of that concert, they’d been playing with a full band and orchestra, but for one number during his own set, Bennett summoned a single guitarist to join him in the snug radius of a spotlight. He told us the song was dedicated to his “best friend, Frank Sinatra,” and launched into a velvety rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” holding the microphone down at his side rather than bringing it to his lips. 

A few lines in, he set the mic down atop a piano and sang the rest without any amplification at all. The entire venue was suspended in a hush stillness, and Bennett’s voice was so strong and clear that you could hear every crystalline note, every enunciated lyric, even in the cheap seats.

“It was spellbinding, and so quintessentially Tony Bennett: the unshowy elegance, the inevitable name-dropping and, above all, the ease with which he suddenly transformed from the rat-a-tat every-crooner into a phenomenally gifted belter who could project like an opera singer,” Zoladz wrote.

Christened Anthony Dominick Benedetto at birth on Aug. 3, 1926, in New York City — it was iconic entertainer Bob Hope who convinced him to abbreviate his name to one which people could easily pronounce — Bennett had a life of highs and lows.

He was only 10 when his father died, and his mother struggled as a dressmaker to support him. As a boy, his love of music was matched only by his interest in painting. He would be a serious painter throughout his life and sold his works under his given name.

After serving as an infantryman in Europe during World War Two, Bennett was singing under the name Joe Bari when Hope caught his act in New York’s Greenwich Village. The comedian was so impressed that he had the singer change his name to Tony Bennett and used him as an opening act.

As an entertainer, he was in his 50s in the late 1970s when he found himself facing a decaying marriage, a cocaine habit, a $2 million tax debt and limited career prospects. He pulled out of it by turning over his management to son Danny, who made his Dad a cool item with the younger generations.

“People ask me, ‘Don’t you get tired of singing that song about San Francisco?'” Bennett said in a Reuters interview. “I say, ‘Do you get tired of making love?'”

The older Bennett grew, the more diverse his collaborators became. He was in his late 80s when he recorded a 2014 album of duets with Gaga and went on a world tour with her in 2015. Partners on his popular “Duet” albums ranged from former Beatle Paul McCartney and soul queen Aretha Franklin to country star Willie Nelson and U2’s Bono.

Bennett marked his 90th birthday in 2016 with a party in New York that drew celebrities such as Bruce Willis and John Travolta. The Empire State Building put on a light show in his honor. He also published a memoir in 2016 titled “Just Getting Started.”

Bennett revealed in early 2021 that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, but he kept recording after the diagnosis and later tweeted, “Life is a gift – even with Alzheimer’s.” The same year he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a statue of Bennett was unveiled outside San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where Bennett first performed the song some 55 years before.

Due to his illness, Bennett retired from performing after his concerts at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 3 and 5, 2021.

Through it all, he maintained a cool, smiling demeanor, and tried to stay faithful to the material he loved best. He always thought of himself as a jazz singer.

Bennett signed with Columbia Records and the result was a string of pop hits such as “Because of You,” a cover of the Hank Williams country standard “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Blue Velvet” and “Rags to Riches.” Legions of screaming teenage girls packed his shows.

As the rock era began in the mid-1950s, Bennett moved away from pop songs toward jazz, working with some of the top names in that genre and recording “Basie Swings, Bennett Sings” with the Count Basie Orchestra.

He pulled his material from jazz and the works of writers like Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Singer and activist Harry Belafonte persuaded Bennett, a champion of human rights, to take part in the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 led by Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte died in April at age 96.

“He was dedicated to civil and human rights and to the arts. He will live as long as we remember him,” U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said on Twitter.

Bennett recorded “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1962 – a tune by two little-known songwriters that his musical director, pianist Ralph Sharon, had stashed away. It reached only No. 19 on the Billboard chart but became his signature song.

“People ask me, ‘Don’t you get tired of singing that song about San Francisco?'” Bennett said in a Reuters interview. “I say, ‘Do you get tired of making love?'”

* Compiled from tributes by Reuters and the New York Times


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