A coke binge in his 50s almost killed Tony Bennett. He survived, reshaping his career

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Tony Bennett’s career was in the toilet and his life was spinning out of control.

It was 1979, and Bennett was without a recording contract or manager, not performing much outside of Las Vegas, and his marriage was falling apart. When the IRS sought to seize his Los Angeles home after he failed to pay $US2 million in taxes, Bennett said he “overindulged” on cocaine and marijuana to the point that he almost overdosed. If not for Sandra Grant, his wife at the time, saving him from drowning in the bathroom when he was high on cocaine, Bennett could have died in his 50s.

Tony Bennett, left, and Lady Gaga appear at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2015.Credit: AP

“I was in a completely self-destructive tailspin,” Bennett wrote in his 2011 book, All The Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett.

After he survived, Bennett picked up the phone and called his son, Danny. The singer’s life had been saved, and now Bennett needed help rescuing his career.

“That was the day of reckoning,” Danny told the New York Times in 1999. ” . . . I think that was a desperate move.”

It was a decision that changed the trajectory of not just Bennett’s career but also his life. With his son as his manager, Bennett got his crippling debt under control. In the process, Bennett jump-started a career in which he won an additional 18 Grammy Awards from that point on, sold tens of millions of records and performed into his mid-90s in what historians have considered to be one of music’s most enduring second acts.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and singer Tony Bennett, who sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco in 1984.Credit: AP

“I knew I had to make major changes in my life,” he wrote in 2011.

Bennett died Friday at the age of 96, the Associated Press reported, citing his publicist, Sylvia Weiner. No specific cause was noted. He and his family revealed in 2021 that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

“Tony Bennett possesses one of the great voices and singing careers of the last 60 years,” John Edward Hasse, a music historian and longtime curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, said before Bennett’s death. “Not very many singers, much less musicians, have achieved that kind of durability. He’s got a jazz musician’s phrasing and sense of timing, as well as a feeling for spontaneity. These are classic, timeless aesthetic values that he personifies.”

But Bennett’s story and legacy might have looked much different if he didn’t survive his near-death experience decades ago.

After Bennett parted ways with his pianist and musical director Ralph Sharon in 1965, he and other singers faced increasing pressure to perform “contemporary” rock songs that helped thrust acts such as the Beatles to worldwide acclaim. The crooner tried to record more contemporary music, but the results were not great. He later compared his disdain for recording the rock songs to the distaste his mother, Anna, a seamstress, felt for working on cheap dresses.

“This has always been my inspiration for insisting on singing nothing but great songs,” he wrote in his 1998 autobiography, The Good Life, which was co-written by Will Friedwald.

When he was without a contract and the recording label he started had flopped, Bennett was amassing significant debt in the late ’70s. He was beginning to be seen as only a Las Vegas nightclub act, and he “began to experience long bouts of depression”, Bennett recounted in The Good Life. He turned to drugs – pills, cocaine, marijuana – during what he described as the “darkest period” of his life.

“I used to take pills – uppies, downies and sleepies,” he wrote in All The Things You Are.

Tony Bennett displays his two Grammy’s backstage at the Shrine Auditorium in 1995.Credit: AP

After his accountants called to tell him that the IRS was beginning proceedings to take the house, Bennett used drugs “in frustration” one night in 1979.

“I overindulged and quickly realised I was in trouble,” he wrote in 1998.

Bennett tried to calm himself down by running a hot bath. He ended up passing out and recalled what he said was a near-death experience.

“A golden light enveloped me in a warm glow,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was quite peaceful; in fact, I had the sense that I was about to embark on a very compelling journey. But suddenly I was jolted out of the vision.”

Singer Tony Bennett performs during the 58th Annual Tony Awards in 2004.Credit: AP

When Bennett woke up, the tub was overflowing and Grant was standing over him. She had heard the tub running for too long and realised he was not breathing when she rushed into the bathroom.

“She pounded on my chest and literally brought me back to life,” Bennett wrote in The Good Life.

On the way to the hospital, Bennett recalled what his ex-manager had told him about the comedian Lenny Bruce, who died of a drug overdose: “The man sinned against his talent.”

“I realised I was throwing it all away, and I became determined to clean up my act,” Bennett wrote.

Tony Bennett, left, and Lady Gaga appear at the Americans for the Arts 2015 National Arts Awards.Credit: AP

The singer called his sons, Danny and Daegal, to fly in for an emergency meeting at their father’s art studio. Bennett wanted them not only to sort out his financial mess but also to figure out how he could become an artist people cared about again.

“He said, ‘Look, I’m lost here. It seems like people don’t want to hear the music I make,’” Danny Bennett recalled to AARP Magazine in 2003.

After Danny took over as his father’s manager, the singer moved to New York to be closer to his family. The sons helped set up a plan for Bennett to repay his debts, which he fully paid off in 1990, according to the Times.

“I said, ‘Your head is above water,’ and Tony said, ‘Really?’” Danny recalled to the newspaper in 1998. “I don’t think he really believes it to this day.”

His music and reputation might have been an even bigger challenge. The family had a plan for that, too. Danny scheduled his dad to perform at colleges and small theatres to help shed his Las Vegas persona. Bennett’s family also helped him get re-signed to Columbia Records. In 1986, he released The Art of Excellence, his first album to make the charts in 14 years.

Bennett’s appeal to younger audiences started with regular appearances on Late Night With David Letterman. Soon, Bennett appeared on Muppets Tonight and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, was caricatured on The Simpsons and made a famous appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1994, where he told the young crowd, “I’ve been unplugged my whole career.”

“We didn’t make it cool to like Tony Bennett,” Danny told AARP. “We just put him in places that were cool to be.”

Bennett continued to connect with younger audiences for the rest of his life, most notably with his late-career collaboration with Lady Gaga.

Later in life, Bennett never forgot how far he had come – and how close he had come to losing it all.

“I did a lot of drugs and all that. And then I learned, from experience, that I wasn’t doing the right thing, and I stopped [taking] all kinds of stimulants that are very bad for you,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2017. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I have a natural life. I don’t have anything to hide, or to stay away, from.”

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