In the 1970s, Tony Bennett’s career and life were in disarray.

He was performing mostly in Las Vegas, a declining city that glued him to a bygone era. His music was out of vogue — his last Top 40 single had been in 1965. He was using cocaine heavily. And his finances were in ruin, prompting the Internal Revenue Service to threaten to take his home.

Well into the 1980s, it seemed that everything was going wrong for the singer.

Then came a comeback for the ages.

The rebirth of Mr. Bennett, who died on Friday, ensured that he would remain one of the most revered singers of American popular music for generations to come. And he did it by staying true to his calling as a champion of the standards known as the Great American Songbook.

Mr. Bennett managed a career resurgence in the late 1980s and ’90s without changing much about his music. All it took was meeting members of a new audience where they were: late-night talk show appearances, a cameo on “The Simpsons” and a memorable performance on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 that led to constant airplay on the network and a surprise Grammy for album of the year.

Generation X, which prized the authenticity of indie and grunge rock, was ready for the unadorned voice of a 60-something Tony Bennett.

“That period was, in fact, a Tony Bennett renaissance, pure and simple,” said Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Other musical artists have experienced similar resurgences: Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” from 1985, reached millions of new fans last year after it was featured on “Stranger Things” and topped the charts; Abba released a new album in 2021, its first in decades; in 2002, a remix of Elvis’s “A Little Less Conversation” became a global smash, decades after he had died.

But what makes Mr. Bennett’s career arc remarkable is that he won over new generations of young people as he released albums and toured across the country into his 60s and far beyond, said Ariana Wyatt, an associate professor in the School of Performing Arts at Virginia Tech. His popularity was bolstered whenever he paired up with younger stars, such as Lady Gaga, with whom he last performed in 2021.

“Usually when you hit that age that he was in the ’80s, you’re kind of over,” Ms. Wyatt said. “It is not standard, that kind of resurgence and regaining of mainstream popularity.”

The comeback story begins after Mr. Bennett nearly died in 1979, when he was high in an overflowing tub. Soon after, he turned to his older son, Danny Bennett, to manage his career.

Danny Bennett did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on Friday night, but in a 1999 interview with The New York Times, he recounted the moment his father had asked for his help.

The I.R.S. was seeking to collect $2 million in back taxes from Mr. Bennett, causing the singer to turn to drugs for escape. When the I.R.S. called his accountants to warn that his house would be seized, Mr. Bennett took drugs and had to be rushed to the hospital, Danny Bennett said at the time.

“That was the day of reckoning,” Danny Bennett said. “That is when he called me up. I think that was a desperate move.”

Danny Bennett was then a 25-year-old punk rocker with long, dyed-blue hair and no college degree. But he said he believed that if his father could be marketed as a living American legend, a genial master of his craft, his career could be revived.

Many have speculated on why exactly young people began to fall in love with Mr. Bennett’s songs all over again.

It might have been their universal appeal — simple lyrics and melody, a comforting yet sometimes raspy voice — that helped Mr. Bennett transcend generations, Mr. Thompson said.

“Tony Bennett’s style, by not being aggressively timely, therefore becomes itself timeless,” Mr. Thompson said.

Danny Bennett’s direction also helped; his father remained in his musical lane, singing the same classic songs that had brought him to fame in the 1950s.

Mr. Bennett was soon regularly appearing on late-night TV shows, starting with David Letterman. Younger audiences came to love the New Yorker singing melancholic, jazzy tunes with a smile.

“My next guest is truly one of the great singers of all time,” Mr. Letterman said in 1986, introducing Mr. Bennett, who wore a dark suit and tie and swayed as he bellowed “Everybody Has the Blues.”

In 1993, Conan O’Brien noted Mr. Bennett’s rise in popularity before asking, “What’s going on?”

“All the young adults in America, they consider me cool,” a bewildered Mr. Bennett said before being showered with applause.

Indeed, young Americans did love Mr. Bennett, and a big reason for that was MTV, which at that time was still courting them with music videos that defined pop culture.

In 1994, Mr. Bennett performed on “MTV Unplugged,” with guest appearances from the singer-songwriters K.D. Lang and Elvis Costello. The album version would go on to win the Grammy for album of the year, causing a shocked Mr. Bennett to say onstage while accepting the award, “I really don’t believe it.”

MTV would play his songs alongside those of alternative rock stalwarts like Weezer and Green Day.

“When you’re looking at the ’90s, the real kind of important place for music invention was this MTV audience,” Ms. Wyatt said.

Movies and television shows also helped cement Mr. Bennett’s place in pop culture. “Goodfellas,” the Martin Scorsese mob movie released in 1990, opens with an iconic sequence: Mr. Bennett bellowing the opening lines “Rags to Riches,” as Ray Liotta’s character begins narrating his life in the mafia. Mr. Bennett also started playing himself in films and TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “Analyze This,” the 1999 mafia comedy film starring Robert De Niro.

In his 2012 memoir, “Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett,” the singer wrote that in the 1960s, he was told he had to change his music for new generations to accept him.

“Yet through the years, every age responds to my singing,” Mr. Bennett said, “even though I haven’t changed a thing.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *