Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden today announced that Tony Bennett is the next recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Tony Bennett is not just an artist for the ages, but an artist for all ages.
His interpretations and re-interpretations have introduced new generations to the Great American Songbook. He is one of a handful of artists to have new albums charting in seven consecutive decades, beginning in the 1950s through the 2010s. Bennett celebrated his 90th birthday on Aug. 3, and the milestone was highlighted with the broadcast of a television special, the release of a new CD and book and the lighting of the Empire State Building honoring his musical legacy.
“Tony Bennett is one of the most accomplished and beloved artists of our time,” Hayden said. “His staying power is a testament to the enduring appeal of the Great American Songbook the Gershwins helped write, and his ability to collaborate with new generations of music icons has been a gift to music lovers of all ages. I am beyond thrilled that he will join us at the Library of Congress later this year to receive this honor.”
Bennett will receive the prize in Washington, D.C., in November. The Gershwin Prize honors a living musical artist’s lifetime achievement in promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations. Previous recipients are Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney, songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and the late Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson and Smokey Robinson.
“When I was still using the stage name ‘Joe Bari’ I made a demo record that was a two-sided 78 disc, and one of the sides I recorded was ‘Fascinating Rhythm,’ which was written by George and Ira Gershwin,” Bennett said. “I am very proud that one of the earliest records I ever made was a song written by the Gershwins, as their songwriting mastery was so exceptional. To be receiving an award that was named in their honor is one of the greatest thrills of my career, and I am deeply appreciative to the Library of Congress to be named this year’s recipient.”
No one in American popular music has recorded for so long and at such a high level of excellence as Tony Bennett. In the last 10 years alone, he has sold 10 million records. Bennett has received 19 Grammy Awards, including a 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award and a 1995 Grammy for Album of the Year for his “MTV Unplugged,” which introduced him to a whole new generation. Later, his 2006 “Duets: An American Classic” was released, featuring performances with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bono and others, winning three Grammy Awards and going on to be one of the best-selling CDs of the year and of Bennett’s career. The follow-up, the 2011 “Duets II,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, making Bennett the oldest artist—at the age of 85—to achieve this in the history of recorded music. He broke this record three years laterwith his 2014 collaboration with Lady Gaga, “Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek,” which also debuted at No. 1 when he was 88.
His initial successes came via a string of Columbia singles in the early 1950s, including such chart-toppers as “Because of You,” “Rags to Riches” and a remake of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” He has had 24 songs in the Top 40, including “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” and his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which garnered two Grammy Awards.
Bennett was born in 1926 in Queens. His father died when he was only 10 years old and his mother, Anna, raised Tony and his older brother and sister, John and Mary. Bennett attended the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, where he nurtured his two passions, singing and painting. From the radio, he developed a love of music listening to Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and James Durante.
Bennett has been on the front lines of history. He is a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp. He marched with Martin Luther King in Selma to support civil rights. He has performed for 11 U.S. presidents. The United Nations has named him a Citizen of the World as one of its foremost ambassadors.
He has been a Kennedy Center honoree (2005) and an NEA Jazz Master (2006) and received Billboard magazine’s Century Award (2006).
He also continues to paint every day, even as he tours internationally. His work has been exhibited in galleries around the world, and the United Nations has commissioned him for two paintings, including one for its 50th anniversary.
Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, a former public high school teacher, founded Exploring the Arts (ETA) to strengthen the role of the arts in public high school education. ETA’s first endeavor was the establishment of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA), a public high school founded in 2001 by Tony and Susan in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. ETA currently supports 33 partner schools in New York and Los Angeles.