Tony Bennett, the beloved and durable interpreter of American standards whose chart-topping career spans seven decades, has been honored with this year's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
The Library of Congress announced the award Tuesday (June 20). The lifetime achievement award named for the duo of George and Ira Gershwin was created by Congress to honor singers and songwriters who entertain, inform and inspire. Past recipients include Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.
Bennett, 90, gained his first pop success in the early 1950s with a string of singles for Columbia Records, including "Because of You" and "Rags to Riches." His 24 top 40 hits include his signature song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" (1962), which won two Grammy Awards.
Bennett enjoyed a career revival in the 1990s and became popular with younger audiences in part because of an appearance on MTV Unplugged. He continued recording and touring constantly, and in 2014, his collaboration with Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
"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," Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement.
Bennett recalled that one of his earliest recordings was "Fascinating Rhythm," a song by the Gershwins.
"To be receiving an award 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," Bennett said in a statement.
Born Anthony Thomas Benedetto in Queens, New York, in 1926, Bennett served in World War II, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to support civil rights and has performed for 11 U.S. presidents.
He is also an accomplished painter whose work has been exhibited at galleries around the world.
Bennett is scheduled to accept the award in Washington in November.
Aretha Franklin, Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Elton John and Stevie Wonder lead an all-star lineup of performers for a TV special celebrating Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday.
Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, k.d. lang and Rufus Wainwright will also come to the party for NBC’s Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come, which will air Dec. 20.
“I turn 90 tomorrow (Aug. 3) and feel like I’m just getting started and look forward to each day,” Bennett said in a statement. “I have loved performing for the public and sharing the music I love with the world. It’s a thrill to have NBC air a special in honor of my birthday and to have so many wonderful artists that I have worked with and admire participate.”
Few recording artists can match Bennett's longevity. The legendary crooner has amassed 19 Grammy Awards over his 60-years-plus in the business. His prolific career has yielded a studio album almost each year on average (he's up to 57 studio sets and 11 live LPs), and Bennett has earned a reputation as a late bloomer. He set the record for the oldest-living artist to land a No. 1 album with 2011's Duets, at which time he was 85. He set a new mark in 2014 when, at age 88, his album Cheek to Cheek, a compilation of duets with Lady Gaga, went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
NBC last hosted a special on Bennett to mark his 80th birthday, back in 2006. Tony Bennett: An American Classic won seven Emmy Awards, more than any other show that year.
“Since we celebrated Tony’s 80th birthday on NBC, it only seemed fitting that we should also stop and pay tribute to his 90th, a true milestone for the greatest living vocalist of popular music,” said Robert Greenblatt, Chairman, NBC Entertainment. “Happy birthday, Tony, your achievements are epic and your voice has been the soundtrack of four generations. We and the entire music business are in awe.”
Actors Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Kevin Spacey, John Travolta and Bruce Willis will participate in the special, and others celebs will be announced in due course.