Tony Bennett, great stylist of American musical standards, died at the age of 96

NEW YORK (AP): Tony Bennett, the legendary and timeless stylist whose devotion to classic American songs and knack for creating new standards like I Left My Heart In San Francisco gave him a decades-long career that brought him fans from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga, died Friday. He is 96, just two weeks short of his birthday.

Publicist Sylvia Weiner confirmed Bennett’s death to The Associated Press, saying he died in his hometown in New York. There is no specific cause, but Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

The last of the great saloon singers of the mid-20th century, Bennett often said his lifelong ambition was to create “a hit catalog rather than hit records.” He released more than 70 albums, which brought him 19 competitive Grammys – all but two after he reached his 60s – and enjoyed deep and lasting love from fans and fellow artists.

Bennett does not tell his own story when performing; he let the music do the talking – the Gershwins and Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Unlike his friend and mentor Sinatra, he would interpret a song rather than embody it. If his singing and public life lacked the high drama of Sinatra, Bennett appealed with a light, polite manner and an unusually rich and robust voice – “A tenor who sings like a baritone,” he called himself – that made him adept at caressing a ballad or energizing an up-tempo number.

“I enjoy entertaining the audience, making them forget their problems,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “I think people… are touched if they hear something that’s sincere and honest and maybe has a little sense of humor…. I just like to make people feel good when I perform.”

Bennett was often praised by his colleagues, but never more so than when Sinatra said in 1965. Life magazine interview: “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who understands what the composer is thinking, and maybe more.”

He not only survived the rock music boom but endured so long and so well that he gained new fans and collaborators, some young enough to be his grandchildren. In 2014, at the age of 88, Bennett broke his own record as the oldest living performer with a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart for Cheek to cheek, his duets project with Lady Gaga. Three years ago, he topped the charts Duets II, featuring contemporary stars such as Gaga, Carrie Underwood and Amy Winehouse, in his last studio recording. His relationship with Winehouse was captured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Amywhich showed Bennett patiently encouraging the insecure young singer by performing the Body and soul.

His last album, the 2021 release Love for Salefeaturing duets with Lady Gaga on the title track, Night and day and other Porter songs.

For Bennett, one of the few performers who moves easily between pop and jazz, such collaborations are part of his crusade to expose new audiences to what he calls the Great American Songbook.

“No country has ever given the world so much great music,” Bennett said in a 2015 interview with Downbeat Magazine. “Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern. Those songs will never die.”

Ironically, his most famous contribution came through two unknowns, George Cory and Douglass Cross, who in the early ’60s gave Bennett his signature song at a time when his career was stalling. They gave Bennett’s musical director, the pianist Ralph Sharon, some sheet music that he stuck in a dresser drawer and forgot about until he was packing for a tour that included a stop in San Francisco.

“Ralph found some sheet music in his shirt drawer… and on top of the pile was something called a song I Left My Heart In San Francisco. Ralph thought it would be good material for San Francisco,” says Bennett. “We were rehearsing and the bartender at the club in Little Rock, Arkansas said, ‘If you record that song, I’ll be the first to buy it.’”

Released in 1962 as the B-side of a single Once upon a timethe reflective ballad became a grassroots phenomenon that remained on the charts for more than two years and earned Bennett his first two Grammys, including record of the year.

In his early 40s, he seems out of fashion. But after turning 60, an age where even the most famous artists often pander to their older fans, Bennett and his son and manager, Danny, found creative ways to market the singer to the MTV Generation. He made a guest appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and was a celebrity guest artist on The Simpsons. He wore a black T-shirt and sunglasses as a presenter with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards, and his own video of Steppin’ Out With My Baby from his Grammy-winning Fred Astaire tribute album landed on MTV’s hip Buzz Bin.

AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this story.

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