Letterman, ‘Goodfellas’ and MTV: How Tony Bennett Reinvigorated His Career

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

He played mostly in Las Vegas, a city in decline that kept him glued to a bygone era. His music was unfashionable. His last Top 40 single was He in 1965. He used cocaine heavily. And his finances collapsed, and the Internal Revenue Service threatened to take him home.

Entering the 1980s, everything seemed to go wrong for the singer.

Then came a comeback after many years.

Bennett’s resurrection, who died Friday, ensures he will remain one of the most revered singers in American popular music for generations to come. And he did it by staying true to his mission as a champion of the standards known as the Great American Songbook.

Mr. Bennett revived his career in the late 1980s and ’90s without much change in his music. All it took was meeting new members of the audience, including appearances on late-night talk shows and cameo appearances on .simpsonsand a memorable performance on 1994’s “MTV Unplugged” led to continued airplay on the network and a surprise Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

With an emphasis on authenticity in indie and grunge rock, Generation X was ready to embrace the raw voice of sixties Tony Bennett.

“That era was really a pure and simple Tony Bennett renaissance,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Briar Television Center for Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Other music artists are experiencing similar resurgences. Kate Bush’s 1985 “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” gained millions of new fans last year after being featured on “Stranger Things” and topping the charts. Abba will release their first new album in decades in 2021. In 2002, decades after Elvis’ death, his remix of “A Little Less Conversation” became a worldwide hit.

But what’s remarkable about Bennett’s career trajectory, according to Ariana Wyatt, an associate professor of performing arts at Virginia Tech, is that she continued to release albums and tour the United States well into her 60s, capturing the hearts of a new generation of young people. His popularity has risen each time he has worked with young stars, including Lady Gaga, who he last worked with in 2021.

“Usually when he gets to the age where he was in the ’80s, it’s kind of over,” Wyatt said. “This kind of resurgence and restoration of mainstream popularity is not the norm.”

The resurrection story begins after Mr. Bennett almost died in 1979, high in a flooded bathtub. Soon after, he turned to his eldest son Danny Bennett to manage his career.

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

As the IRS sought to collect $2 million in additional taxes from Mr. Bennett, Mr. Bennett turned to drugs to escape. Danny Bennett said at the time that when the IRS called his accountant to warn him that his house would be foreclosed on, Bennett was drugged and had to be rushed to hospital.

“It was a day of reckoning,” said Danny Bennett. “That’s when he called me. I think it was a desperate move.”

Danny Bennett was a 25-year-old punk rocker with long blue hair and no college degree. But he said he believes his career can be revived if his father is marketed as a living American legend, a genius master of technology.

Many speculate as to why young people once again fell in love with Mr. Bennett’s music.

Thompson said their universal appeal, with their simple lyrics and melodies and their pleasing but sometimes raspy voices, may have been Bennett’s cross-generational strength.

“Tony Bennett’s style is so timeless that it’s made itself timeless,” said Thompson.

Danny Bennett’s instructions were also helpful. His father continued his musical career, singing the same classic songs that brought him fame in the 1950s.

Mr. Bennett soon became a regular on late-night television, starting with David Letterman. Young audiences have come to love the New Yorkers who sing melancholic, jazzy tunes with a smile.

“Our next guest is literally one of the greatest singers of all time,” Letterman Said In 1986, it featured Mr. Bennett rocking in a dark suit and tie, shouting “Everybody Has the Blues.”

In 1993, Conan O’Brien He noted Mr. Bennett’s rising popularity and asked, “What’s going on?”

“All the young people in America think I’m cool,” Mr. Bennett said bewildered, to applause.

In fact, young people in America loved Mr. Bennett. A big reason for that was his MTV, which at the time still captivated young people with music videos that defined pop culture.

In 1994, Mr. Bennett appeared on “MTV Unplugged,” with guest appearances by singer-songwriters KD Lang and Elvis Costello. The album version later won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, much to Bennett’s shock. To tell “I can’t believe it,” he said as he accepted the award on stage.

MTV aired his songs alongside those of alternative rock heavyweights like Weezer and Green Day.

“If you look at the ’90s, the place that really mattered for music invention was this MTV audience,” said Ms. Wyatt.

Movies and TV shows have also helped cement Bennett’s place in pop culture. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film Goodfellas opens with an iconic scene in which Mr. Bennett shouts the opening line, “Rags to Riches,” and Ray Liotta’s character begins to tell his life in the Mafia. Bennett also began playing himself in movies and TV shows such as “The Simpsons” and the 1999 Mafia comedy “Analyze This,” starring Robert De Niro.

In her 2012 memoir Life is a Gift: Bennett’s Zen, the singer wrote in the 1960s that she was told she had to change her music to be accepted by a new generation.

“Still, years later, people of all ages respond to my songs, even though I haven’t changed anything,” Bennett said.

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