Tony Bennett, the monumental singer whose renditions of jazz and pop standards shaped American music, died in his New York hometown today (July 21), his publicist said. No cause of death was given, but Bennett had been living with Alzheimer’s disease since 2016. He was 96 years old.
Bennett scored the first number one song of his decades-long career in 1951, with “Because of You.” His massive acclaim and commercial success included 50 million albums worldwide album sales and 20 Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born and raised in Queens, the son of Italian immigrants. The lifelong New Yorker served as a foot soldier in the army in World War II, performing with military bands in Europe. He played his first night club gig in 1946, and in 1949, he was discovered by Bob Hope, who gave him a job and dubbed him “Tony Bennett.” He released his debut album, Because of You, in 1952.
From there, Bennett maintained a prolific output. He released dozens of studio albums and spent much of his life on the road. His signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” came out in 1962. He made albums with Bill Evans in the ’70s. In 1994, he had a career resurgence with his MTV Unplugged special. Its accompanying album, one of the biggest sellers of his career, won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
In 2014, he teamed up with Lady Gaga to release the duets album Cheek to Cheek. She marked just one of the many names he collaborated with; Bennett also sang duets with Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John.
Amy Winehouse’s final recording was “Body and Soul,” her duet with Bennett. Their session in the studio is captured in the documentaries Amy and The Zen of Bennett. “She was very nervous to perform, but I said, ‘You know, it sounds like you’re influenced by Dinah Washington.’ And all of the sudden, her whole life changed,” he said. “The great ones that are very talented know just how to turn jazz singing into a performance that’s unforgettable. And Amy had that gift. The fact that she died at 27 years old is just horrible to me. If she had lived, she would’ve been right up there with Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. It’s just a tragedy.”
Bennett was a committed humanitarian, following his experiences in the war. He also became a best-selling author, Kennedy Center Honoree, recipient of the United Nations’ Citizen of the World award, and an NEA Jazz Master. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery. He co-founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York. His paintings are part of the Smithsonian Museum’s permanent collection. “My whole life has been singing and painting,” he said in a 2015 interview. “I just do those two things. Every day feels like just starting out, because I still have so much more to learn.”
Lady Gaga and Bennett’s follow-up to Cheek to Cheek, the Cole Porter covers album Love for Sale, came out in 2021. Footage of the sessions captured Gaga attempting to make conversation with Bennett, who was showing signs of Alzheimer’s. While he sang, Gaga sobbed. The pair celebrated the album with a pair of shows at Radio City Music Hall the week of Bennett’s 95th birthday. That month, Bennett’s family announced the singer was permanently retiring from performing.