The Song That Made Tony Bennett a Star
By Danny R. Johnson – Pop Music Critic
Tony Bennett—who died last week at 96—reportedly sang one previous song while sitting at his piano. It was “Because of You,” his first hit, released in 1951, and the single that propelled him to more than seven decades of fame, fortune, and legend. But it was always more than a stepping stone. Where many artists downplayed their early work, Bennett kept “Because of You” close to his heart. There is much to remember Bennett for, from his civil-rights activism to his stewardship of classic American pop songs. Without “Because of You,” none of it might have happened.
When Bennett first recorded the song, he was a 24-year-old kid from Queens whose slim discography had yielded little success. He had fought in World War II, participating in liberating Nazi concentration camps. As part of the postwar occupying force, he sang in Army bands. His career began in earnest at Columbia Records (then the home of Frank Sinatra) but almost stalled before it began. He was on the verge of being dropped by the label when, in 1951, the orchestra leader Percy Faith randomly picked “Because of You” out of a pile of sheet music for Bennett to record.
“Because of You” has an interesting provenance. A Hammerstein co-wrote it—but not Oscar, the lyricist who famously collaborated with Richard Rodgers. Instead, it was written by Oscar’s far less notable uncle, Arthur, and his creative partner Dudley Wilkinson. At first, the song went nowhere, the Hammerstein brand notwithstanding. But Faith’s chance selection changed all that. His advice to Bennett: “Just relax. Use your natural voice and sing the song.” Better counsel was never given. Before that, Bennett, by his admission, had been unsuccessfully trying out an overwrought style. “Then,” he said, “we decided I would just sing honestly and sincerely.”
Bennett brought an eventful young life—childhood hardship and war horrors—to bear on the heartbreaking lull of “Because of You.” Faith’s orchestra curls around Bennett’s trembling voice and weightless cadence, informed by the singer’s lifelong adoration of jazz. There’s gravity to it, though. When he sings, “And I can smile because of you,” the subtext is simple but crushing: The object of his love is the only thing that can keep his spirit from collapsing. But the strength of that love is enough.
In his book The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, Ben Yagoda calls Bennett “the most justly celebrated singer of standards”—yet “Because of You” was virtually unknown, as was Bennett, when he recorded it. That obscurity didn’t last long. The single sold more than a million copies. It floated for weeks from sandwich-shop jukeboxes and sitting-room radios across the country. “Because You” became the title of Bennett’s debut album; it set the stage for his rise and the resurgence of a mature pop style whose appeal transcended teenybopper fads and reached a world-wearier audience.
Like many of his contemporaries, including his friend Sinatra, Bennett grudgingly capitulated to the commercial pressures of rock music—but only briefly. As he remarked in his memoir The Good Life, “I thought the world was losing its mind” when rock started conquering the pop charts in the ’60s. His two albums from 1970, Tony Sings, the Great Hits of Today! And Tony Bennett’s “Something” was bogged down by half-hearted interpretations of the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. From that low point, he decided to double down on his passion for jazz, even as the jazz world was pivoting away from dreamy crooners during the fusion-heavy ’70s. Likewise, he never gave up on “Because of You.” It remained a staple of his live sets and a fan favorite, a tender reminder of the delicate power and ageless warmth he possessed even in his youth.
Later decades grew kinder to Bennett; by the turn of the century, the world had fully embraced him again. “Because of You” was partly responsible for reviving his popularity; his rendition of this song with k. d. lang helped make his 2006 album, Duets: An American Classic, a platinum-selling triumph. It paved the way for the final chapter of Bennett’s decorated career, where he sang with younger artists such as Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga, ensuring his resonance for generations to come.
I was fortunate to interview Bennett at an Ella Fitzgerald 100th Birthday Celebration in NYC in April 2017. Bennett, a former neighbor in Beverly Hills, CA, where Ella lived for several years, performed two songs, “Our Love is Here to Stay” and “Because of You,” in Fitzgerald’s honor. Students from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public arts high school founded by Bennett in his hometown of Astoria, Queens, also performed. The festivities occurred at the famous Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza, City of New York. Bennett donated a framed print of his portrait of the singer to the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation.
“I like the funny things in life that could only happen to me now,” he said. “Once, when I was singing Kurt Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars in the Hollywood Bowl with Basie’s band and Buddy Rich on drums, a shooting star went falling through the sky right over my head, and everyone was talking about it, and the next morning the phone rang, and it was Ray Charles, who I’d never met, calling from New York. He said, ‘Hey, Tony, how’d you do that, man?’ and hung up.”
Bennett might not have realized that “Because of You” would be his swan song, but it couldn’t have served as a better bookend. If it had been his only hit by some twist of fate, it would still echo with ache. As history would have it, though, the song was his career’s opening and epitaph. “Because of You” made Bennett a star—mainly because of him; popular music retains a body of songs whose romance will forever make us swoon.