Tony Bennett dead at 96: Legendary crooner best known for ‘Rags to Riches’ and his performances with Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga, sold millions of records around the world
- Bennett died on Friday in New York, just two weeks before his 97th birthday
- No cause of death was given, however his death comes seven years after Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
- He was pictured in a wheelchair in New York back in April – one of his last public appearances before his death
Iconic crooner Tony Bennett has died at the age of 96 – just two weeks short of his 97th birthday.
The eminent musician, who was born in Long Island City, Queens in 1926 and went on to enjoy a decades-long career that saw him collaborating with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga – passed away on Friday in his hometown of New York, his publicist Sylvia Weiner confirmed.
No cause of death was given, however Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, a condition that he battled privately for five years before revealing it to the world in 2021.
At the time, it was revealed that Bennett had begun exhibiting symptoms of mental decline in 2018, struggling with memory – although he continued to sing with perfect pitch and dynamism.
Indeed, Bennett carried on performing for years after he was diagnosed – and even released a new album with his close friend and collaborator Lady Gaga in September 2021.
In April, Bennett was seen in New York City in a wheelchair in what is understood to have been one of his last public appearances before his passing.
Legendary crooner Tony Bennett has passed away at the age of 96
Bennett (seen in 1952) began singing when he was just a young boy – and signed his first record contract in the early 1950s after serving in the US Army during World War II
The crooner was pictured traveling around in a wheelchair in New York City back in April – one of his last public appearances
The last of the great saloon singers of the mid-20th century, Bennett often said his lifelong ambition was to create ‘a hit catalog rather than hit records.’
During his lifetime, he released more than 70 albums and earned 19 Grammys Awards – all but two after he reached his 60s – and enjoyed the adoration of millions of fans across the world.
Bennett didn´t tell his own story when performing; he let the music speak instead – the Gershwins and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
Unlike his friend and mentor Sinatra, he would interpret a song rather than embody it.
If his singing and public life lacked the high drama of Sinatra’s, Bennett appealed with an easy, courtly manner and an uncommonly rich and durable voice.
‘A tenor who sings like a baritone,’ he called himself, a skill that made him a master of caressing a ballad or brightening an up-tempo number.
‘I enjoy entertaining the audience, making them forget their problems,’ he told The Associated Press in 2006. ‘I think people… are touched if they hear something that´s sincere and honest and maybe has a little sense of humor…
‘I just like to make people feel good when I perform.’
Bennett was praised often by his peers, but never more meaningfully than by what Sinatra said in a 1965 Life magazine interview: ‘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.’
During his career, Bennett collaborated with a host of famous faces, from Rosemary Clooney (left) to Liza Minelli (right)
Perhaps his most famous collaboration was with his close friend Lady Gaga, with whom he worked on multiple occasions, with the pair releasing an album together in September 2021
He not only survived the rise of rock music but endured so long and so well that he gained new fans and collaborators, some young enough to be his grandchildren.
In 2014, at age 88, Bennett broke his own record as the oldest living performer with a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart for ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ his duets project with Lady Gaga.
Three years earlier, he topped the charts with ‘Duets II,’ featuring such contemporary stars as Gaga, Carrie Underwood and Amy Winehouse, in her last studio recording.
His rapport with Winehouse was captured in the Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Amy,’ which showed Bennett patiently encouraging the insecure young singer through a performance of ‘Body and Soul.’
His final album, the 2021 release ‘Love for Sale,’ featured duets with Lady Gaga on the title track, ‘Night and Day’ and other Porter songs.
For Bennett, one of the few performers to move easily between pop and jazz, such collaborations were part of his crusade to expose new audiences to what he called the Great American Songbook.
‘No country has given the world such great music,’ Bennett said in a 2015 interview with Downbeat Magazine. ‘Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern. Those songs will never die.’
Ironically, his most famous contribution came through two unknowns, George Cory and Douglass Cross, who in the early ´60s provided Bennett with his signature song at a time his career was in a lull. They gave Bennett´s musical director, pianist Ralph Sharon, some sheet music that he stuck in a dresser drawer and forgot about until he was packing for a tour that included a stop in San Francisco.
‘Ralph saw some sheet music in his shirt drawer… and on top of the pile was a song called `I Left My Heart In San Francisco.´ Ralph thought it would be good material for San Francisco,’ Bennett said. ‘We were rehearsing and the bartender in the club in Little Rock, Arkansas, said, `If you record that song, I´m going to be the first to buy it.’
Released in 1962 as the B-side of the single ‘Once Upon a Time,’ the reflective ballad became a grassroots phenomenon staying on the charts for more than two years and earning Bennett his first two Grammys, including record of the year.
By his early 40s, he was seemingly out of fashion. But after turning 60, an age when even the most popular artists often settle for just pleasing their older fans, Bennett and his son and manager, Danny, found creative ways to market the singer to the MTV Generation.
He made guest appearances on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ and became a celebrity guest artist on ‘The Simpsons.’ He wore a black T-shirt and sunglasses as a presenter with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards, and his own video of ‘Steppin´ Out With My Baby’ from his Grammy-winning Fred Astaire tribute album ended up on MTV´s hip ‘Buzz Bin.’
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