Three Things Tony Bennett Taught Us About Resilience

Tony Bennett’s recent revelation that he has Alzheimer’s disease is a moment to reflect on an amazing, resilient career. Wikipedia notes he signed with Columbia Records after serving in World War II and had his first number-one popular song with “Because of You“ in 1951. Several top hits such as “Rags to Riches“ followed in early 1953. Tony Bennett refined his approach to encompass jazz singing. He reached an artistic peak in the late 1950s with albums such as The Beat of My Heart and Basie Swings, Bennett Sings. In 1962, Bennett recorded his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco“.

Tony Bennett with Amy Winehouse

At the dawn of the rock era, Tony Bennett’s fortunes sagged, but he staged a successful comeback in the late 1980s, by appealing to the MTV generation while maintaining his musical style. His son booked him on Late Night with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Simpsons, even the Muppets Tonight. Bennett became a fixture on MTV, embraced by artists of the day. He released a pair of Duets albums, singing with seventeen diverse artists, including Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Queen Latifah, and Lady Gaga. His duet with Amy Winehouse on “Body and Soul“—is reported to be the last recording she made before her death. When it broke into the Billboard Hot 100, Tony Bennett became the oldest living artist to make an appearance there. Bennett has won 19 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented in 2001) and two Emmy Awards. He is an NEA Jazz Master and was a Kennedy Center Honoree. He has sold over 50 million records.

Distilling his resilience gives us a sense for some commonalities that apply to any brand, whether it’s broadcasting or and individual.

  • Create great content – In a 2010 interview, Bennett noted, “I’m not staying contemporary for the big record companies, I don’t follow the latest fashions. I never sing a song that’s badly written. In the 1920s and ‘30s, there was a renaissance in music that was the equivalent of the artistic Renaissance. Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and others just created the best songs that had ever been written. These are classics, and finally they’re not being treated as light entertainment. This is classical music.“
  • Purpose your art across the currently popular platforms – Bennett was successful in connecting with the MTV audience in the 80s. His duets with currently popular artists introduced him to a new generation. He wasn’t afraid to take chances. His focus on quality material and excellent execution dovetailed with an ability to position an established brand in a way that resonated with fresh ears.
  • Keep going – Tony Bennett continued to perform into his 90s. He could have easily crashed and burned when rock and roll became the popular genre. He endured his share of difficulties but kept coming back for more, ultimately earning icon status that crosses the generations.


February 3, 1959 is ‘The Day The Music Died‘. Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens die in a crash shortly after take-off from Clear Lake, Iowa. The pilot of their single-engined Beechcraft Bonanza plane was also killed. Holly hired the plane after heating problems developed on his tour bus. All three were travelling to Fargo, North Dakota, for the next show on their Winter Dance Party Tour. Don McLean‘s 1972 hit, American Pie features cryptic lyrics about the event. Here’s my attempt at deconstructing them (Audio).

You might not know – Producer Joe Meek famous for helming The Tornados‘ instrumental “Telstar” (1962), was interested in spirituality and often attended séances. At one such meeting in 1958 he was warned that Buddy Holly would die on February 3. Meek tried his best to find Holly when he was in London to warn him but failed in his mission. On February 3, 1967, Meek shot his landlady Violet Shenton and then shot himself at his flat in London.

Hal Holbrook

The passing of actor Hal Holbrook, turns another page in our generation’s history book. Obits talk about his ground breaking one-man stage show, Mark Twain Tonight!. But don’t forget his stunning performance as “Deep Throat” in the 1976 film All the President’s Men. Holbrook’s last major role was Francis Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln (2012). He portrayed Lincoln, himself in the 1976 miniseries Lincoln and 1985 miniseries North and South.

Today in History:

1863: Samuel Clemens first uses the pen name Mark Twain in a Virginia City newspaper, the ‘Territorial Enterprise’
1882:Circus owner P. T. Barnum buys his world-famous elephant Jumbo.
1945: Walt Disney’s “The Three Caballeros” released
1968: One Hit Wonders The Lemon Pipers went to No.1 on the US singles chart with ‘Green Tambourine’, credited as one of the first bubblegum pop chart-toppers.
1968: The Beatles started work on their new single ‘Lady Madonna’ at Abbey Road studios in London. Recording three piano and drum takes with overdub bass, fuzz guitars, drums, and vocals.
1971: NYPD officer Frank Serpico is shot during a drug bust while his fellow officers stood outside and failed to call for assistance. Al Pacino portrayed Serpico in the 1973 film of the same name.
1999: American soul singer Gwen Guthrie died of cancer aged 48. She sang backing vocals for Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Madonna and wrote songs for Sister Sledge and Roberta Flack. She scored the 1986 R&B No.1 ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on But the Rent’.

Today’s Birthdays:

Norman Rockwell

1874    Gertrude Stein (d. 1946)
1894    Norman Rockwell (d. 1978)
1907    James A. Mitchner (d. 1997)
1918    Joey Bishop (d. 2007)
1920    Henry Heimlich, Surgeon and inventor of the Heimlich maneuver, born in Wilmington, Delaware (d. 2016)
1925    Comedian Shelley Berman (d. 2017)
1935    Johnny ‘guitar’ Watson, American blues guitarist, singer. His ferocious ‘Space Guitar’ single of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb. Watson died on 17th May 1996 while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. According to eyewitness reports, he collapsed mid-gu
1941    Neil Bogart, American record executive (d. 1982)
1943    Eric Haydock best known as the original bass guitarist of The Hollies from December 1962 until July 1966. He was one of the first British musicians to play a Fender Bass VI, a six-string bass. (d. 2019)
1943    Dennis Edwards, singer with The Temptations, who had the 1971 hit, ‘Just My Imagination’. (d. 2018)
1943    Actress, Blythe Danner, mom to actress and singer Gwyneth Paltrow.
1947    The Kinks’ Dave Davies.
1947    Melanie (Safka) (Brand New Key, Lay Down, What Have They Done to My Song, Ma)
1950    Actress Morgan Fairchild

Today in 1973, Elton John started a three-week run at No.1 on the US singles chart with ‘Crocodile Rock’. Elton’s first of five US No.1 singles was inspired by John’s discovery of leading Australian band Daddy Cool and their hit single ‘Eagle Rock’.

Thanks for listening!

Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit