Roger Ebert Home

Legacy Forever: Memories of Tony Bennett (1926-2023)

How does one sum up a life as momentous as that of Tony Bennett?

He won 20 Grammys, two Emmys, and sold over 50 million records worldwide. He was a WWII vet, a Civil Rights leader, and a phenomenal collaborator with everyone from K.D. Lang to Lady Gaga. He was a legend who made his art seem so effortless largely through the joy he expressed while doing it. That iconic voice sounds like it comes with a smile, and one could sense how much Bennett loved performing every time he did so. He lived a gigantic life, always feeling like he never wasted a single day of it. He will be truly missed.

Rather than post a traditional tribute to one of the most famous performers of all time, we thought we’d share some that have been posted already, along with some incredible clips about Mr. Bennett, a fantastic story by our very own Matt Zoller Seitz, and, finally, one of his last recordings, a perfect send-off for a perfect life.

Official Statement from Susan Benedetto and Danny Bennett:

Thank you to all the fans, friends and colleagues of Tony’s who celebrated his life and humanity and shared their love of him and his musical legacy. From his first performances as a singing waiter in Queens to his last performances in 2021 at Radio City Music Hall, Tony delighted in performing the songs he loved and making people happy. And as sad as today has been for all of us we can find joy in Tony’s legacy forever.

Matt Zoller Seitz on Tony Bennett:

In 1996, I was a critic and feature writer for the Star-Ledger of New Jersey, and Tony Bennett was performing at a casino in Atlantic City. Bennett was also a painter, and a book of his paintings, What My Heart Has Seen, had recently been published. Because I'd studied to be a visual artist and could talk about the process, thought I had a better chance of an unusual piece if I asked him about the relationship between his singing and his painting. 

I met him at a restaurant in Little Italy. He was charming, eloquent, and magnetic, and to my relief, he was not only game to talk about painting and music, we spent a good part of the conversation discussing Paul Gauguin, a major inspiration on his style. He was so curious and affable that he asked me questions about my life, and I ended up telling him that my wife Jennifer and I had just moved to New York from Dallas a few years earlier. He asked me how we liked the city so far (we loved it) and recommended that we visit Small's jazz club (which would soon become a favorite). After a while, Bennett's publicist popped in and said he had to go because he had another interview.  

I went to the newspaper the next day and filed my piece. Bennett's assistant called me later and said that Bennett had instructed her to invite me and Jennifer to come see him perform in Atlantic City, as his guests. 

I froze for a second because, thinking about the cost of travel and hotel fare. I was also concerned that the price of Tony Bennett tickets exceeded the $20 limit on gifts we were allowed to accept from people we interviewed. I asked my editor, and he practically laughed in my face. "Just go!" he said. I discussed it with Jennifer, and we decided it would be foolish to turn down such a gesture, so we booked a room, packed our bags, and took the bus to Atlantic City that weekend. 

When we checked in, the clerk gave us our tickets. When we got inside the auditorium, we were shocked to find that he'd put us in the front row, center. The performance was magnificent, and there were several points where he made eye contact with us with a gleam in his eye that said, "Oh, there you are--my friends!" It was one of the best nights of either of our lives. But it wasn't over.

After the show, we stood up from the table and moved to leave, and again his assistant approached. "Mr. Bennett wondered if you'd be free to visit him backstage," she said. Well, of course. 

When we got into the dressing room--which had a mirrored table with light bulbs ringing the perimeter of the glass, like in old movies--his assistant said, "Mr. Bennett, Matt, and Jennifer are here." Bennett stood up from the dressing room table, still clad in his dark suit but with his tie gone and his collar opened. He picked up a bouquet of flowers from a vase on a nearby stand, walked over to us, bowed a little, kissed Jennifer's hand as if she were royalty, handed her the bouquet, and said, "Jennifer, it's such a pleasure to meet you. Matt's told me so much about you." He opened a bottle of champagne, poured glasses for himself, his assistant, Jennifer, and myself, and raised a toast to Paul Gauguin. I don't remember much about the conversation that followed except that I'd never seen my wife blush and stammer so much. 

The next morning when we went to check out, the clerk said, "It's taken care of." He'd comped the room and the late-night room service we'd ordered after the concert.  

Two years later, Bennett released The Playground, an album of new arrangements of songs for and about children. It became a go-to music choice for our daughter Hannah, whom we had nearly named Toni. Hannah studied theater and drawing in middle school and decided that in high school, she'd like to study filmmaking. Four years later, Hannah graduated from the Frank Sinatra High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Queens, New York, which was founded by Tony Bennett.

Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune:

In 1991, early in the glorious resurgence of Bennett’s career, I spent part of a weekend with him in San Francisco for a story. We ate dinner at his friend Gino’s place on Columbus Street. Bennett sketched a little picture of me while we had our espresso. We played tennis the next morning, by which time I thought to myself: If you have to work on a weekend, there is no better way to do it. He beat me in two sets, exactly the way he sang: powerfully but effortlessly. How do you do it? I asked him. You’re 65 and you’re playing like you’re 30, and I’m 30 and playing like I’m 130. What’s your secret?

“Cream sauce,” Bennett said. “I avoid it.”

During dinner the night before, I asked him why the music he loved apparently had come back in favor, and why he thought careers like his had their ups, downs and, if you’re lucky, ups again.

He smiled. “It’s a young country, only a couple hundred years old,” he said. “Other societies are thousands of years old, and they’re smarter; they know what’s good about America. We don’t always know. We’ve always had this silly streak, I guess. ’Cause we’re young and foolish, y’know?” Like the song.

Tony Bennett: The Greater American Songbook's ambassador (chicagotribune.com) 

Bruce Weber in the New York Times:

Indeed, what many listeners (including the critics) discovered about Mr. Bennett, and what they responded to, was something intangible: the care with which he treated both the song and the audience.

He had a storyteller’s grace with a lyric, a jazzman’s sureness with a melody, and in his finest performances he delivered them with a party giver’s welcome, a palpable and infectious affability. In his presentation, the songs he loved and sang — “Just in Time,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “Rags to Riches” and “I Wanna Be Around,” to name a handful of his emblematic hits — became engaging, life-embracing parables.

Frank Sinatra, whom Mr. Bennett counted as a mentor and friend, once put it another way.

“For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business,” he 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 has in mind, and probably a little more.” 

Tony Bennett, Jazzy Crooner of the American Songbook, Dead at 96 - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Daniel Arkin in NBC News:

In the 1950s, Tony Bennett watched with dismay as Black musicians like Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington were denied admission to concert hall dining rooms and hotels. The injustice he witnessed infuriated the young singer.

"I'd never been politically inclined, but these things went beyond politics," Bennett wrote in "The Good Life," his 1998 autobiography. "Nate and Duke were geniuses, brilliant human beings who gave the world some of the most beautiful music it's ever heard, and yet they were treated like second-class citizens. The whole situation enraged me."

That's why, when the artist and activist Harry Belafonte called up Bennett and asked him to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Bennett accepted without hesitation. He flew to Alabama and linked arms with his allies in the fight for justice.

Tony Bennett, enraged by racism, championed civil rights alongside MLK (nbcnews.com)

Donald Liebenson in Vanity Fair

In 2014, Cheek to Cheek, a collection of standards that paired Bennett and Lady Gaga, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 pop and rock chart. The subsequent PBS special was nominated for an Emmy. In his ninth decade, Bennett sold a reported 10 million albums.

Bennett, to paraphrase the title of his idol Frank Sinatra’s own signature song, did it his way. When he appeared on MTV Unplugged, guest artists such as k.d. lang and Elvis Costello dueted on songs from Bennett’s vast repertoire of standards, and not the other way around. He played intimate clubs and the finest concert halls rather than impersonal stadiums.

It was a testament to his cross-generational appeal that he appeared on American Idol, voiced himself on The Simpsons, made a self-deprecating cameo opposite a Bennett-impersonating Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, and guested on The Howard Stern Show and Late Night with David Letterman.

Tony Bennett Dead at 96 | Vanity Fair 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Hit Man
STAX: Soulsville, USA
Babes
Back to Black

Comments

comments powered by Disqus