Five Things to Know About Tony Bennett: With a career spanning more than 60 years, and more than 50 million records sold, Tony Bennett has become an American music legend. His signature songs include “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Rags to Riches,” and “The Good Life.” From his birth in 1926 as Anthony Benedetto to his world tour with Lady Gaga, there’s more than a lifetime of stories to tell about this beloved star. In honor of his upcoming show in St. Petersburg on March 7, here are some things to know about Tony Bennett.
- He was almost a painter instead of a singer.
Growing up in Astoria, Queens, young Bennett developed a passion for drawing. He studied painting, along with music, at the School of Industrial Art in New York, until he was compelled to drop out to help support his family at age 16. Although singing eventually won out as his profession, he kept painting. Today, he has works in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Arts Club, and the United Nations commissioned him for a painting commemorating its 50th anniversary.
- He saw action in WWII—and then became a pacifist.
Bennett was drafted in November 1944, just in time to serve on the front lines in the last stages of the war in Europe. As part of his service, he helped to liberate the Kaufering concentration camp. Seeing the horrors of war firsthand made Bennett a lifelong pacifist. In his autobiography The Good Life, he wrote, “Anyone who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn’t gone through one.”
- He’s always been true to himself.
Bennett began his recording career in 1950, after being discovered by Bob Hope. His first hits were lavishly orchestrated pop songs, with an emphasis on show tunes and the brassy big band sound. He later branched into jazz. The pop charts turned themselves over to the rock n roll sound in the late 1950’s, but Bennett continued to have hits with his traditional style of music. When the Beatles’ music dominated the charts in the mid 1960’s, Bennett’s hits dried up, but he weathered the storm by continuing to record in his own style. When he reemerged onto the charts in the early 1990’s, it was as if nothing about him had changed.
- Frank Sinatra was a big fan.
Like most singers of the big band era, Bennett greatly admired Frank Sinatra. In this case, the feeling was mutual. “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business,” Sinatra told LIFE magazine in 1965. “He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what the composer had in mind, and probably a little more.” The friendship between the two singers flourished over several decades, until Sinatra’s death in 1998. As a tribute to his friend, Bennett would later found the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a public high school with one of the highest graduation rates in New York City.
- He knows how to connect with a young audience.
When he emerged from his career slump in the early 1990’s, Bennett found himself booked on shows like the Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. With his voice and image unchanged, he toured on the alternative rock circuit, finding a brand new audience and culminating with his appearance on MTV’s Unplugged in 1994. “I’ve been unplugged my whole career,” he told the delighted crowd. A series of Duets albums followed, allowing him to collaborate with younger artists. “Body and Soul,” his duet with Amy Winehouse, made him the oldest living artist to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2014, he released an entire album’s worth of duets with Lady Gaga.