Written by from National Public Radio
On this Piano Jazz session from 2004, Tony Bennett brings his effortlessly swinging singing to an impeccable set of tunes from the Great American Songbook, including music from Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Ted Koehler, Alec Wilder and more.
“Playing for [Tony Bennett] was the easiest thing in the world to do, he was such an easygoing guy,” host Marian McPartland says. “Tony loves Alec Wilder’s music, and we did some Wilder tunes on the program that I especially liked. It was so much fun!”
Bennett brings to the set an intimate knowledge of the craft behind the great standards. He is among the few performers alive and working today who knew many composers of the repertoire, and that makes his appearance on Piano Jazz both a delight for the listener and a special moment in the oral history of American Popular Song.
Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on Aug. 3, 1926. His father, a grocer, and his mother, a seamstress, were recent immigrants from Southern Italy who settled in Astoria, Queens. Bennett grew up listening to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, and began to find his own singing voice by age 10. As a teenager, he studied both music and painting at the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan. He put his vocal talents to work after school, singing and waiting tables in neighborhood restaurants.
Bennett served in the Army during WWII, where he fought as an infantryman in Europe and performed with military bands. Upon his return, he resumed his musical studies with the assistance of the GI Bill at the American Theatre Wing School. He also began singing in local nightclubs in around New York; while working with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village, he was approached by comedian Bob Hope, who invited him to sing at the Paramount Theatre. Hope also suggested that the singer shorten his name from Anthony Benedetto to Tony Bennett.
Bennett signed with Columbia Records and released a series of successful singles during the early 1950s, including his first big hit, “Because of You.” With the chart-topping success of his recordings of Hank Williams‘ “Cold Cold Heart,” a big-band recording of “Rags to Riches” and his version of Broadway tunes such as “Stranger in Paradise,” Bennett’s fame began to spread to national and international audiences. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he recorded and performed with such jazz legends as Count Basie, Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell and Herbie Mann.
Though rock ‘n’ roll supplanted Bennett’s style of music throughout the ’70s and ’80s, his popularity began to rise again after an appearance with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the 1993 MTV Video Awards ceremony. His subsequent appearance on MTV Unplugged and the resulting album introduced Bennett to a new generation of fans and earned him a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Bennett has sold more than 50 million records worldwide, with numerous platinum and gold albums to his credit, as well as 15 Grammy Awards. In 2006, at age 80, Bennett released his best-selling album to date. The Grammy-winning Duets featured Bennett collaborating with the likes of James Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder and John Legend, among others.