Tony Bennett, Iconic Vocalist, Dead At 96

Tony Bennett has died, his publicist confirmed on July 21, per the New York Post. The singer was 96 years old. His cause of death has not yet been released.

Bennett will forever be considered a legendary vocalist, alongside other greats such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. According to his website, Bennett won 19 Grammy Awards over the course of his 72-year career, including the Grammy Lifetime Award. And that success didn't decline as he grew older. Bennett's collaborative album with Lady Gaga, "Cheek to Cheek," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's top 200 pop and rock chart in 2014, via AARP. As the New York Times pointed out, that rating established Bennett as the oldest performer to have a No. 1 album.

What is it exactly that made Bennett so special? Perhaps it was a mixture of factors: Smooth, crooning vocals, a warm and kind personality, and an unwavering love for music, even as his health deteriorated. Sinatra himself often called Bennett "the greatest singer in the world," per The Star Tribune. Though it took Bennett some time to find his opening into the music industry, the decorated singer has left his mark on the music world for years and years to come.

Music followed Tony Bennett in his pre-fame years

A native of Astoria, Queens in New York, Tony Bennett grew up as Anthony Dominick Benedetto during the Great Depression, per Biography. His father passed away when he was 10 years old, leaving just his mother to raise him, and his two older siblings, according to his website bio. However, the sadness of losing a parent did not stop Bennett from pursuing a singing career from an early age. In his teenage years, Bennett went to the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan and worked in a restaurant, where he sang while waiting tables.

Bennett was soon drafted in World War II and fought in France and Germany, per the Veterans Affairs Blog. Upon becoming a corporal, he also fought in the Battle of the Bulge and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp in southern Germany. Bennett remained in Germany as part of the postwar occupational forces in 1945, via War History Online. While there, he found the time to perform with military bands under the stage name Joe Bari.

As told by Veterans Affairs, Bennett returned to the U.S. in 1946 a different man with an even stronger desire to perform. He used his tuition benefits from the G.I. Bill to study singing at the American Theater Wing. During that time, vocal coach Mimi Spears gave him the sound advice that would shape his career: "Don't imitate other singers. Imitate instrumentalists instead" (via Daily News).

Creating the Tony Bennett legacy

According to Tony Bennett when he spoke to the Daily News, Mimi Spears' advice helped him gain attention. He began singing at night clubs in 1946, and in 1949, the comedian Bob Hope noticed him, per the Tony Bennett website. Hope enjoyed Bennett's performance so much that he told him, "'Come on kid, you're going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.'" But first, Hope insisted that Bennett ditch the stage name Joe Bari. "He said, 'We'll call you Tony Bennett,'" Bennett recalled. "And that's how it happened. A new Americanized name — the start of a wonderful career and a glorious adventure that has continued for over 60 years."

As reported by the New York Times, Bennett became an instant hit when his 1951 single "Because of You" reached No. 1 on Billboard charts. "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" became an international best seller in 1962. In the 1970s, however, Bennett ended his longtime relationship with his music label, Columbia, via Daily News. The singer disagreed with label executives over their contemporary style choices, as he wanted to stick to his classic sound.

Still, Bennett's new albums continued to chart in the 1970s and 1980s. He re-signed with Columbia Records in 1986, according to his website. His album "The Art of Excellence", which was released in the same year, is often considered his comeback album, per Daily News. Bennett's songs soon transcended into music gold, becoming American classics.

Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, and the power of music

In 2014, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga released their collaborative album, "Cheek to Cheek," via Spotify. Gaga told Parade at the time that she had considered quitting music altogether, until she met and collaborated with Bennett. "He saved my life," she said. Unfortunately, in February 2021, Bennett and his family revealed in an interview with AARP Magazine that the singer was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Bennett was diagnosed in 2016.

Fortunately, music tremendously helped Bennett live with Alzheimer's. The crooner performed right up until March 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions forced him to stop. According to his neurologist, he would often seem lost and confused backstage at his performances, until he heard the announcer's voice boom into the microphone: "Ladies and gentlemen, Tony Bennett!" As if a switch flicked on, Bennett would walk out as his old self. He never missed a lyric.

As it turns out, Bennett was displaying clear signs of Alzheimer's when he recorded another album with Lady Gaga in 2018, per Entertainment Weekly. During one recording session, Gaga noticed that Bennett was "considerably more muted," and seemed confused when she mentioned their 2015 tour. Bennett then sang the solo part of a love song perfectly, moving Gaga to tears. Though Bennett may not have always been himself in his final years, his truest self will forever be remembered in his music.