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Dr. Carla Hayden and Tony Bennett pose onstage with the Gershwin Prize.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden presents Tony Bennett with the 2017 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during the Gershwin concert at DAR Constitution Hall, November 15, 2017. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Remembering Tony Bennett, Gershwin Prize Winner

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Tony Bennett, the Gershwin Prize-winning singer who knew his way around torch ballads, jazz standards and just about every nook and cranny of the Great American Songbook, has passed away at 96. He dazzled and charmed everyone at his Gershwin concert in 2017 and we won’t forget him, his grace and his impeccable touch with a song, anytime soon.

“Tony’s music and voice transcended generations and musical categories and his name is synonymous with the ‘Great American Songbook,’ which he has enriched with a multitude of songs known and loved throughout the world,” Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, said in a statement. “Most importantly, he has stood for ‘the best of the best’ in music, with an unshakeable commitment to excellence and integrity. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

His 2017 Gershwin Concert was a stunner, including him performing a spirited version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “They All Laughed.” Stevie Wonder sang, as did Gloria Estefan, Vanessa Williams, Josh Groban and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

“The Gershwins created some of our most beautiful music,” Bennett said at the time. “Their songs had gorgeous poetry and wonderful musicality.”

He sold more than 50 million records in a 70-year career that resulted in a stunning number of awards. He was a Kennedy Center honoree, won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy Awards and was recognized as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

The Library’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song honors the legendary Gershwin songwriting team. Bennett was a natural fit. From his first big hit “Because of You,” to his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” to his late-career duets with an array of stars, Bennett found his way into everyone’s playlist. He was the elder statesman of the Gershwin Awards, as other recipients have included Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney, Carole King, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson and, most recently, Joni Mitchell.

His life was a journey through the heart of the 20th century. Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens, New York, on August 3, 1926, he was just 10 years old when his father died. It was 1936, the Depression hung over the nation, and the family had little money. He had already started singing, though, and with an uncle involved in vaudeville, he had a start. He also had already begun developing his other lifelong artistic endeavor, drawing and painting.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944 and fought in the infantry as the allies marched across France and into Germany. His unit took part in liberating a concentration camp.

He was back home in 1946. After three years of studying and singing, he got his first big break when jazz star Pearl Bailey asked him to open for a show in New York. Bob Hope was in the audience and took Bennett on the road with him. That first No. 1 hit, “Because of You,” a lush ballad, came when he was 25.

It was 1951, and he was on his way.

Tony Bennett and fellow performers wave and applaud on stage. Vanessa Williams, Stevie Wonder, Michael Buble and others stand around Bennett
Tony Bennett waves farewell to the audience at his 2017 Gershwin Prize concert, surrounded by fellow performers. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Comments (2)

  1. San Francisco Has Lost its Son

    After winning a Giants baseball game,
    Tony Bennett’s song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco
    would be played on speaker phone.

    His beautiful, soulful tune goes right to the heart!
    His song, his love for his city now has become,
    the soul of San Francisco.

    __Coy Williams

  2. I loved Tony Bennett since my first viewing of him as Summer replacement for Perry Como. I was probably about 10 years old at the time. He will be greatly missed; however, his recordings will live forever.

    Thank you so much for this forum to express my feelings.

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