Legendary crooner Tony Bennett dead at 96

The singer, artist and philanthropist enjoyed a career spanning seven decades.

July 21, 2023, 5:00 PM

Legendary crooner Tony Bennett -- who made teenagers scream in the 1950s and toured with Lady Gaga in 2014 and 2015 -- has died at age 96.

Bennett "passed away in his hometown of New York City" Friday morning, according to a statement from his publicist provided to ABC News.

Bennett revealed in 2021 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2016.

Tributes to Bennett poured in Friday from around the world. Among those leading the tributes was Billy Joel, who called Bennett "one of the most important interpreters of American popular song during the mid to late 20th century" in a statement shared to his website.

"So sad to hear of Tony's passing," Elton John said in a statement. "Without doubt the classiest singer, man, and performer you will ever see. He's irreplaceable. I loved and adored him. Condolences to Susan, Danny and the family."

Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Queens, New York, Bennett was blessed with the ability to sing pop hits, jazz tunes and the Great American Songbook. After serving in World War II, he got his big break in 1949 when Bob Hope took him on tour. He signed with Columbia Records and scored a string of hits through the '50s, including "Because of You," "Cold, Cold Heart, "Rags to Riches" and "Stranger in Paradise."

PHOTO: Tony Bennett in Chicago, Dec.12, 1992.
Tony Bennett in Chicago, Dec.12, 1992.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images, FILE

In 1962, Bennett released what would become his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Although it only reached number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it won him two Grammys, including Record of the Year.

With the onset of the British Invasion, Bennett's hits declined, and by the end of the 1970s he had a failed marriage, no manager, no record label, and was struggling with substance use and had troubles with the IRS. In desperation, he turned to his children for help. Taking over as his manager, Bennett's son, Danny, then engineered one of the greatest comebacks in musical history. Danny focused on inserting Bennett into pop culture, with appearances on the late-night talk show circuit, "The Simpsons" and MTV, the latter including a stylish video for his 1993 song, "Steppin' Out with My Baby."

The culmination of this campaign was the 1994 album "Tony Bennett: MTV Unplugged," featuring appearances by Elvis Costello and k.d. lang. It was named Album of the Year at the 1995 Grammy Awards.

PHOTO: In this Dec. 6, 2015, file photo, Tony Bennett performs in Las Vegas.
In this Dec. 6, 2015, file photo, Tony Bennett performs in Las Vegas.
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images, FILE

After that, Bennett retained his cool, appearing at the U.K.'s Glastonbury festival, mentoring on "American Idol," playing himself in hit movies like "Analyze This," and singing with the likes of Christina Aguilera, Michael Bublé, Bono, George Michael and Billy Joel on his 2006 album "Duets: An American Classic" -- one of several star-studded duets albums he released.

Bennett's recording of the popular jazz standard "Body and Soul," a duet with Amy Winehouse, was released in March 2011 and reached number 87 on the Billboard Hot 100. The hit made Bennett the oldest living artist to chart on the Hot 100. It was Winehouse's last recording before her untimely death in July 2011.

Bennett first sang with Lady Gaga on his 2011 album "Duets II," which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart. That led to a close friendship and, eventually, their 2014 duets album "Cheek to Cheek," which also debuted at number one, won a Grammy Award and spawned a tour. Bennett's most recent Grammy win was in 2022 for his second album of duets with Lady Gaga, "Love for Sale," which was named Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.

In addition to winning a total twenty Grammys and two Emmy Awards, Bennett's accolades include a Kennedy Center Honor, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award, Grammy and ASCAP lifetime achievement awards, and an eight-foot tall statue of his likeness in front of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.

Bennett's experiences during World War II, including participating in the liberation of a concentration camp, motivated him to become a lifelong pacifist and humanitarian, his publicist said.

Bennett supported the civil rights movement and joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. He was nicknamed "Tony Benefit" for his many charity appearances.

He was also an acclaimed painter, with works exhibited in galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution. He and his wife, Susan, founded the charity Exploring the Arts, as well as the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public performing arts high school in Queens, New York.

Bennett performed at the inauguration of former President Bill Clinton in 1993 and the second inauguration of former President Barack Obama in 2013.

"We loved and admired Tony Bennett and marveled at the breadth of his talent and depth of his commitment to creating a better world," Bill and Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

"Tony Bennett was an iconic songwriter and entertainer who charmed generations of fans," Obama said in a tweet. "He was also a good man—Michelle and I will always be honored that he performed at my inauguration."

Bennett is survived by his wife, Susan, and his four children from previous marriages: sons Danny and Dae and daughters Joanna and Antonia.