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Tony Bennett's career has enjoyed three distinct phases, each of them very successful. In the early '50s, he scored a series of major hits that made him one of the most popular recording artists of the time. In the early '60s, he mounted a comeback as more of an adult-album seller. And from the mid-'80s on, he achieved renewed popularity with generations of listeners who hadn't been born when he first appeared.

Bennett grew up in the Astoria section of the borough of Queens in New York City under the name Anthony Dominick Benedetto. His father, a grocer, died when he was about ten after a lingering illness that had forced his mother to become a seamstress to support the family of five. By then, he was already starting to attract notice as a singer, performing beside Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in 1936. By his teens, Bennett had set his sights on becoming a professional singer. By the end of the 1940's, he had acquired a manager and was working regularly around New York. He got a break when Bob Hope saw him performing with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village and put him into his stage show, also suggesting a name change to Tony Bennett. In 1950, Columbia Records A&R director Mitch Miller heard his demonstration recording of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and signed him to the label.

Bennett's first hit, "Because of You," topped the charts in September 1951, succeeded at number one by his cover of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart." Following another five chart entries over the next two years, he returned to number one in November 1953 with "Rags to Riches." Its follow-up, "Stranger in Paradise" from the Broadway musical Kismet, was another chart-topper, and in 1954 Bennett also reached the Top Ten with Williams' "There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight" and "Cinnamon Sinner." The rise of rock & roll in the mid-'50s made it more difficult for Bennett to score big hits, but he continued to place singles in the charts regularly through 1960, and even returned to the Top Ten with "In the Middle of an Island" in 1957. Meanwhile, he was developing a nightclub act that leaned more heavily on standards and was exploring album projects that allowed him to indulge his interest in jazz; notably 1957's The Beat of My Heart, on which he was accompanied mainly by jazz percussionists, and 1959's In Person With Count Basie and His Orchestra. By the early '60s, although he had faded as a singles artist, he had built a successful career making personal appearances and recording albums of well-known songs in the manner of Frank Sinatra.

In 1962, Bennett introduced "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," a ballad written by two unknown songwriters, George Cory and Douglass Cross, who had pitched it to his pianist, Ralph Sharon. Released as a single by Columbia, the song took time to catch on, and although it peaked only in the Top 20, it remained on one or the other of the national charts for almost nine months. It became Bennett's signature song and pushed his career to a higher level. The I Left My Heart in San Francisco album reached the Top Five and went gold, and the single won Bennett Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male. Bennett's next studio album, 1963's I Wanna Be Around, also made the Top Five, and its title track was another Top 20 hit, as was Bennett's next single, "The Good Life," also featured on the album. For the next three years, Bennett's albums consistently placed in the Top 100, along with a series of charting singles that included the Top 40 hits "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" (from the Broadway musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd) and "If I Ruled the World" (from the Broadway musical Pickwick).

By the late '60s, Bennett's record sales had cooled off as major-record labels like Columbia turned their attention to the lucrative rock market. By the mid-'70s he was without a label affiliation, and he decided to found his own record company, Improv, to record the way he wanted to. He made several albums for Improv, including a duet record with jazz pianist Bill Evans, but the label foundered in 1977.

By the late '70s, however, Bennett did not need hit records to sustain his career, and he worked regularly in concert halls around the world. By the mid-'80s, there was a growing appreciation of traditional pop music, as performers such as Linda Ronstadt recorded albums of standards. In 1986, Bennett re-signed to Columbia Records and released The Art of Excellence, his first chart album in 14 years. Now managed by his son Danny, Bennett shrewdly found ways to attract the attention of the MTV generation without changing his basic style of singing songs from the Great American Songbook while wearing a tuxedo. By the early '90s, he was as popular as he had ever been. The albums Perfectly Frank (1992, a tribute to Frank Sinatra) and Steppin' Out (1993, a tribute to Fred Astaire) went gold and won Bennett back-to-back Grammys for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance. But his comeback was sealed by 1994's MTV Unplugged, featuring guest stars Elvis Costello and k.d. lang, which went platinum and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Bennett became a Grammy perennial, also taking home Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance awards for Here's to the Ladies (1995) and On Holiday: A Tribute to Billie Holiday (1997).

Tony Bennett