Tony Bennett has died at 96, just three weeks short of his 97th birthday.
I was so honored and lucky to know him. He was actually a legend, a obviously a great singer and artist, a philanthropist, and political activist.
After a tremendous first chapter of life with hits like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” Tony came back stronger than ever in the 1990s with a voice that had grown only richer and wiser, and had hit after hit especially with Laga Gaga toward the end. He recorded with other stars, too, like Amy Winehouse, and it broke his heart when she died.
For long time, Tony lived in the shadow of Frank Sinatra, the premier crooner of his day. But when Sinatra died, Tony stepped out of that shadow and claimed his rightful place in the world of the arts. We were so lucky he lived here in New York where we could see him and talk to him regularly.
Tony was no prima donna, that’s for sure. I’ve told these stories before, but two come to mind. One was after a TV special of his won several Emmys. At the after party there was a buffet. There was Tony and his devoted wife, Susan, sitting on a long bench among other people who were not paying attention to them. Their paper plates were perched on their knees and they were eating from them. Tony, I said, you just won a lot of Emmy Awards! Bennett replied, “It’s okay! We’re fine here!”
My favorite story was accompanying Aretha Franklin to a recording session with Tony on New York’s west side. He was recording for his second Duets album. The temperature outside was about 100 degrees. Inside it was worse because Aretha had asked to turn off the air conditioning. She was wearing a sleeveless top and didn’t have a drop of sweat on her. Tony was dressed in a suit and tie and he was drenched. “Tony,” I said, “you can take off the jacket and the tie, you know.” He looked at me and said, “I got dressed up to sing for Aretha Franklin!” and refused to doff anything.
When I told Aretha she responded, “We took Tony Bennett to the recording studio and he burst into flames!”
Tony’s big second act was due to his own talent, of course. But also to the devotion of his family, principally his son, Danny, who became his astute manager and guided him through the 21st century. Tony’s other kids, grandkids, and wife Susan surrounded him with love. Condolences to all of them. What a life to celebrate!
PS One thing I left out: as late as 18 months ago Tony was still giving little concerts in his living room despite Alzheimer’s. He remembered every word and phrase of the songs. The music had been written into his wiring. At his 95th birthday at Radio City two years ago, it was the same. He performed a 40 minute solo set with his band, plus performed with Lady Gaga, never missing a beat. His rich voice was always a Wonder of the World. And so was he!