Iconic crooner Tony Bennett honored with Gershwin Prize in PBS special

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Tony Bennett performs at the Gershwin Prize ceremony.
Courtesy Cable Risdon Photography

Tony Bennett: Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song

A star-studded cast of performers will honor Tony Bennett as he accepts the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Bennett is the first interpretive singer to receive the award, named for George and Ira Gershwin and traditionally awarded to composers for excellence in songwriting.

The event, taped Nov. 15 and scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. Jan. 12 on PBS, will feature performances by Bennett, Chris Botti, Michael Bublé, Gloria Estefan, Michael Feinstein, Savion Glover, Josh Groban, Wé McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Vanessa Williams and 2009 Gershwin Prize honoree Stevie Wonder.

Bennett’s 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.

The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song is named in honor of the legendary songwriting team George and Ira Gershwin. The prize is given annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins. The Gershwin Prize was first awarded to Paul Simon in 2007, followed by Stevie Wonder in 2009, Sir Paul McCartney in 2010, the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 2012, Carole King in 2013, Billy Joel in 2014, Willie Nelson in 2015 and Smokey Robinson in 2016.

Bennett is an artist for all ages whose 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.

“WETA is proud to bring this year’s special performance honoring Tony Bennett to the American people in collaboration with the Library of Congress,” said Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA. “Sharing these special musical events with the wide public television audience across this country is our continuing honor.”

“Tony Bennett’s extraordinary career has left an indelible mark on music and culture in America,” said Paula A. Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. “As part of our commitment to present the best of the arts to the American public, PBS and our member stations are honored to recognize Tony’s contributions and share his cultural legacy.”

No one in American popular music has recorded for so long and at such a high level of excellence as Tony Bennett. 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.

In the last 10 years alone, Bennett has sold 10 million records. 

Bennett was born in 1926 in Queens, New York. His father died when he was 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 is also 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, Jr. 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. Among his honors, Bennett has been a Kennedy Center honoree (2005), an NEA Jazz Master (2006), and received Billboard magazine’s Century Award (2006).

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