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No one in popular American music has recorded for so long and at such a high level of excellence than Tony Bennett. In the last ten years alone he has sold ten million records.
Bennett was born in the Astoria section of Queens on August 3, 1926 and attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he nurtured his two passions: singing and painting. As a teenager, Bennett sang while waiting on tables. He then enlisted in the Army during World War II and performed with military bands while in Europe. He later had vocal studies at the American Theatre Wing School. Bennett’s big break came in 1949 when comedian Bob Hope noticed him working with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in New York City.
With millions of records sold worldwide and platinum and gold albums to his credit, Bennett has received 19 Grammy Awards—including a 1995 Grammy for Record of the Year for his MTV Unplugged CD, which introduced this American master to a whole new generation—and the Grammy Lifetime Award. His initial successes came via a string of Columbia singles in the early 1950s, including such chart-toppers as “Because of You,” “Rags to Riches,” and a remake of Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart.” He had 24 songs in the Top 40, including “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me),” and his signature song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which garnered him two Grammy Awards.
Bennett is one of a handful of artists to have new albums charting in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and in the first two decades of the 21st century. Bennett re-signed with Columbia Records in 1986 and released the critically acclaimed The Art of Excellence. Since his 1991 show-stopping performance at the Grammy Awards of “When Do The Bells Ring For Me” from his Astoria album, he has received a string of Grammy Awards for releases including Stepping Out, Perfectly Frank, and MTV Unplugged.
In 2006, the year of his 80th birthday, Bennett’s Duets: An American Classic was released. The album—which included performances with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Bono, and others—won three Grammy Awards and went on to be one of the best-selling CDs of the year and Bennett’s career. Bennett’s first Duets album also inspired the Rob Marshall-directed television special Tony Bennett: An American Classic, which won seven Emmys, making it the most honored program at the 2007 Emmy Awards. In celebration of his 85th birthday in 2011, the release of his highly anticipated Duets II featured Bennett performing with a new roster of celebrated artists including the late Amy Winehouse, Michael Bublé, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban, Lady Gaga, John Mayer, and many others. Duets II debuted at #1 on the Billboard Album charts, making Bennett the only artist at the age of 85 to achieve this in the history of recorded music. Bennett won two Grammys for Duets II in 2012, and that year marked the 50th Anniversary of the recording and release of his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” A documentary entitled The Zen of Bennett premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. At the end of that year, Bennett also authored his fourth book, the New York Times bestseller, Life is a Gift, which highlights his personal philosophies learned throughout his life and career. Bennett’s collaborative jazz album with Lady Gaga, released in 2014, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts, making Bennett, at the age of 88, the oldest artist to have a #1 album—breaking his own previously established historical record. “Cheek To Cheek” won a Grammy in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal category. Bennett’s 2015 release, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal album.
On August 3, 2016, Bennett celebrated his 90th birthday, which was marked by the lighting of the Empire State Building in honor of his musical legacy. Later that year, NBC aired a two-hour prime time special, Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best is Yet to Come, which featured performances by Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, and Michael Bublé. Tony’s fifth book, Just Getting Started, was also published in 2016.
Bennett became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2005, was named an NEA Jazz Master in January of 2006, received a Citizen of the World award from the United Nations, and received a Billboard Magazine Century Award in honor of his outstanding contributions to music. In November 2017, the Library of Congress presented him with The Gershwin Prize, marking the first time the honor has been bestowed upon an “interpretive singer” as, to that date, it had only been given to composers.
Bennett is a dedicated painter who has exhibited his work in galleries around the world. The United Nations has commissioned him for two paintings, including one for their 50th anniversary. His original painting, “Homage to Hockney,” is on permanent display at the Butler Institute of American Art, and the landmark National Arts Club in New York is home to his painting “Boy on Sailboat, Sydney Bay.” Three of his paintings are part of the Smithsonian Museums permanent collections, including his portrait of his friend Duke Ellington, which is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.
Bennett is also known for his philanthropic and humanitarian efforts. He has raised millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, which established a research fund in his name. He marched with Dr. King in the historical Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights movement, and the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta bestowed upon him their Salute to Greatness Award for his efforts in fighting racial discrimination. In 1999, Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, a former public-school teacher, founded Exploring the Arts (ETA) to strengthen the role of the arts in public high school education. ETA’s first endeavor was the establishment of Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA), a public high school founded in 2001 by the couple in partnership with the NYC Department of Education.