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Legendary crooner Tony Bennett dead at 96

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Mark Seliger

Legendary crooner Tony Bennett, who made teenyboppers scream in the 1950s and toured with Lady Gaga in the 2000s, has died at age 96.

Bennett, who passed away in his hometown of New York City on Friday, July 21, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, but he didn’t reveal it until February 2021.

Born Dominick Benedetto in Queens, New York, Bennett was blessed with the ability to sing pop hits, jazz tunes and the Great American Songbook. After serving in World War II, he got his big break in 1949 when Bob Hope took him on tour. He signed with Columbia Records and scored a string of hits through the ’50s, including “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Rags to Riches” and “Stranger in Paradise.” 

In 1962, Bennett released what would become his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Though it only reached #19 on the charts, it won him two Grammys, including Record of the Year.

With the onset of the British Invasion, Bennett’s hits declined, and by the end of the ’70s he had two failed marriages, a drug problem, no manager, no record label and was in trouble with the IRS. In desperation, he turned to his children for help. Taking over as his manager, his son Danny Bennett then engineered one of the greatest comebacks in musical history.

Danny made a concerted effort to insert Bennett into pop culture, with appearances on SCTV, Late Night with Letterman, The Simpsons and MTV, the latter including a stylish video for his 1993 song “Steppin’ Out with My Baby.”

The culmination of this campaign was the 1994 album Tony Bennett: MTV Unplugged, featuring appearances by Elvis Costello and k.d. lang. It was named Album of the Year at the 1995 Grammy Awards.

Since then, Bennett has retained his cool, appearing at the U.K.’s Glastonbury festival, mentoring on American Idol, playing himself in movies like Analyze This and singing with the likes of Christina Aguilera, Michael Bublé, Bono, George Michael and Billy Joel on his 2006 album, Duets: An American Classic — one of several star-studded duets albums he released.

Bennett first sang with Lady Gaga on his 2011 album, Duets II, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart. That led to a close friendship and, eventually, their 2014 duets album, Cheek to Cheek, which also debuted at number one and won a Grammy. A tour followed in 2015. In August 2021, Bennett celebrated his 95th birthday onstage at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall with Lady Gaga; their second duets album, Love for Sale, was release in October 2021.

In addition to numerous Grammys and two Emmys, Bennett’s accolades include a Kennedy Center Honor, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, Grammy and ASCAP lifetime achievement awards and an 8-foot-tall statue of his likeness in front of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.

A noted civil rights activist, humanitarian and philanthropist, Bennett was nicknamed “Tony Benefit” for his many charity appearances. He was also an acclaimed painter, with works exhibited in galleries around the world. He and his wife, Susan Benedetto, founded the charity Exploring the Arts, as well as the Frank Sinatra School of Arts, a public performing arts high school in Queens.

Bennett is survived by his wife, Susan; his two sons, Danny and Dae Bennett; his daughters, Johanna Bennett and Antonia Bennett; and nine grandchildren.

 

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