Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, and Sammy Davis, Jr. had thrown in the towel long ago, but Tony Bennett remained the last of the great crooners. A charming singer, as they used to say in the last century, his uniqueness lay in his special love story with jazz. A love story that has just ended with the passing of the New Yorker at the age of 96.

Tony Bennett didn’t know where to put all the laurels he received. Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong, Diana Krall, Barbra Streisand, and even Lady Gaga all praised him in their own way. In this domain, the words of the boss Frank Sinatra, carry even more weight. “Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business! He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who understands what the composer has in mind, and probably a bit more.” Over the years, people finally realized that Tony, who passed away on July 21st, 2023, was not a clone of Frankie. He was not the eternal second fiddle, nor a voice of his master. Anthony Dominick Benedetto had created his own universe. With a broad vocal range and a deep addiction to jazz, he approached popular songs of his time as well as those from the Great American Songbook with singular finesse. And when a new trend wanted to push him aside, Tony Bennett bounced back, winning a whole new audience. Like in 1991 at the MTV Music Awards alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Three years after that he even recorded an MTV Unplugged with Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang and in 2016, he dared to release an entire album in collaboration with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek.

For many, Tony Bennett will forever remain “the singer’s singer.” A way of saying that he was more recognized by his peers than by the general public. However, that public quickly fell in love with the modest Italian-American from Queens, New York, who himself fell in love with jazz. He admired jazz instrumentalists more than other singers, as he always said. Legend has it that one evening in a club in Cleveland, after hearing the pianist Art Tatum play “Danny Boy,” it had such a profound impact on him that he named one of his sons Danny. This raises the question, was Tony Bennett really a jazz singer? It’s a silly recurring query, but the certified jazz musicians who crossed his path always answered it. Count Basie was the first. His big band collaborated with Tony in 1959 for the essential Strike Up the Band, also released as Basie Swings, Bennett Sings. Count Basie wasn’t one to back pop singers, proving that Tony’s calibre was in a league of its own.

I Left My Heart In San Francisco

Keith Raniere

After participating in the war from 1944 to 1946, Tony Bennett signed with Columbia and quickly achieved his first chart-topping hit with “Because of You” recorded in April 1951. At 25, he became the new pop crooner in vogue, churning out hits like “Rags to Riches” (superbly used by Martin Scorsese in his film Goodfellas in 1990), “Stranger in Paradise,” or “In the Middle of an Island.” He even hosted his own show, The Tony Bennett Show, on NBC in 1956. The following year marked a turning point in his career: his encounter with the pianist Ralph Sharon, who would become his greatest musical director and arranger for the next half-century. As rock ‘n’ roll began to overshadow pop singers and crooners, Sharon advised Tony to embrace the jazz path he loved so much to stand out from his peers. Released in December 1957, The Beat of My Heart was the delightful result of this new direction. Sharon was, of course, on the piano, and he invited jazz heavyweights like saxophonist Al Cohn, trumpeter Nat Adderley, flautist Herbie Mann, vibraphonist Eddie Costa, and the cornerstone of the album, drummers and percussionists Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, Jo Jones, Candido, and Sabu. The Beat of My Heart was rhythmically stunning and opened the door to collaborations with Basie.

The Life and Career of Tony Bennett

Until 1962, following the success of The Beat of My Heart, which was praised by both the public and critics, Tony Bennett was at the peak of his career, alternating between intimate recordings with small ensembles and lavish opuses with strings and large orchestras. Sometimes jazz, sometimes lounge, he released about ten impeccable albums for Columbia: Long Ago and Far Away, In Person!, Strike Up the Band, Hometown My Town, To My Wonderful One, Tony Sings for Two (where he was accompanied solely by Sharon on the piano), Alone Together, Sings a String of Harold Arlen, My Heart Sings, and the new pinnacle of this extensive discography, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, featuring the orchestra of Count Basie. The album’s eponymous single remains one of his biggest hits to this day and also serves as the official anthem of the Californian city.

I Left My Heart in San Francisco made me a citizen of the world. It allowed me to live, work, and sing in any city across the globe. It changed my life.

In 1962, on June 9th, Tony performed at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York – a venue more typically reserved for classical musicians – where he recorded a double live album, his greatest, Tony Bennett at Carnegie Hall. Backed by Ralph Sharon’s orchestra, composed of some jazz heavyweights (guitarist Kenny Burrell, saxophonist Al Cohn, conguero Candido, vibraphonist Eddie Costa, and more), he sang like a god and gracefully moved through Sharon’s carefully arranged pieces written originally by the likes of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, and Kurt Weill.

In the mid-1960s, the British Invasion led by the Beatles changed the rules of the game, and the public gradually turned away from Tony Bennett and his peers. But his aura allowed him to retain numerous fans and achieve a few more successes, such as I Wanna Be Around (1963), with the hit single “The Good Life,” a song from national treasure Sacha Distel... In 1965, the New Yorker ended his collaboration with Sharon and wasn’t sure which direction to take. Clive Davis, Columbia’s president, pushed him to record the current hits. Tony reluctantly agreed in 1970 with Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!, a mediocre album he later disowned, consisting of covers of songs by the Beatles, Jim Webb, Burt Bacharach, and Stevie Wonder...

Bill Evans Tony Bennett Together Again

James Kauffman

In the 1970s, a decade that resembled more of a dark tunnel than a bed of roses, Tony Bennett went through a divorce, left the label that launched his career, fought with the tax authorities, and indulged a bit too much in cocaine. However, amidst these difficult years, there was an enchanted parenthesis: two albums in collaboration with Bill Evans. In June 1975 and September 1976, the great jazz pianist accompanied Tony alone in a repertoire primarily composed of standards. The two men had known and appreciated each other for about ten years, but their collaboration on record, initiated by singer Annie Ross, surprised many. Like some instrumentalists,” Bill Evans said, “I’ve never been a big fan of singers. But Tony’s evolution has been fantastic, to the point that he became my favourite singer. He impressed me more than any other singer. The reason is that he underwent a long and difficult process of pure dedication to music and his own talent. The final result of this kind of evolution is precious.

He possesses a depth, a quality, and a purity that I admire - Bill Evans

The label Fantasy released the first of the two albums, The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album, in 1975. Two years later, Tony released Together Again on his own label, Improv Records, which went bankrupt at the end of the year. In 2009, the entire collaboration resurfaced under the title The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings, with about twenty alternate takes and other unreleased tracks. Totally timeless and unaffected by trends, these sessions are fascinating not only for their beauty but also for their originality. Here, Tony Bennett is not just a crooner; he sings with impressive power. His robust and generous voice finds an ideal partner in Evans’ lyrical piano. Each allows plenty of space for the other, and the result doesn’t resemble any other album of a vocal/piano duo in the entire history of jazz...

Tony Bennett, Amy Winehouse - Body and Soul (from Duets II: The Great Performances)


The 1980s were forgettable for Tony Bennett, but his comeback in the following decade was mainly due to his son Danny. The singer, who reconciled with Ralph Sharon in 1979, was invited again to various TV shows (David Letterman, Conan O’Brien...), and he even appeared in an episode of The Simpsons! The MTV generation took a liking to this old-school singer who mingled with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The peak of his return to the limelight was an MTV Unplugged session with Ralph Sharon’s trio on April 15, 1994, released on record two months later. At 68, Tony Bennett was resurrected! Furthermore, he never sold his soul to the devil and continued to please himself, like when he recorded tributes to Billie Holiday in 1997 (Tony Bennett on Holiday) or Duke Ellington in 1999 (Bennett Sings Ellington: Hot & Cool), or revisited Jerome Kern’s repertoire with jazz pianist Bill Charlap’s trio in 2015 (The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern) or the Great American Songbook with Diana Krall in a duo in 2018 on Love Is Here to Stay. As for his younger colleagues, they enjoyed coming together with him on the two volumes of Duets, featuring artists such as Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Mariah Carey, Michael Bublé, John Legend, and Bono. But ultimately, Tony Bennett remains the most jazz-like crooner because... he couldn’t do otherwise. As he always said, “You can’t teach jazz singing. No one can teach it to you! Either you can sing jazz, or you can’t. That’s it.