November 23, 1998 12:00 PM

Pop trends come and go, but for Tony Bennett, some things never change. “The record people tried to change my style for a quick buck,” says Bennett of the pressure to follow music trends. “But if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have been around all these years. Sinatra told me not to do silly songs. Stay with great music, well-written songs. Doing that has sustained me.”

So successfully, in fact, that since the death last May of his pal Frank Sinatra, Bennett, 72, may just be America’s greatest living pop singer. After more than 50 years in the business, in September the husky-voiced star released his 98th album, The Playground, a children’s CD featuring duets with Rosie O’Donnell and Kermit the Frog, among others. And in a new autobiography, The Good Life, Bennett goes from rags to riches all over again. “It shows the ups and downs of life,” he says. “That not everything is nice.”

Anthony Dominick Benedetto may have, according to his signature tune, left his heart in San Francisco, but it will always belong to Queens, N.Y., where he grew up the youngest child of John Benedetto, an Italian-born grocery-store manager, and his wife, Anna. After her husband’s death in 1936 of congestive heart failure, Anna worked as a seamstress to support Tony, then 10, and his two siblings, Mary and John. In return, Tony serenaded his mother while she sewed. “She gave us our morals,” he says, “our form.”

At family gatherings his uncles passed along their passion for music, playing Italian folk songs on the guitar while Tony sang along. At 16, he dropped out of high school to help his mother with the bills, eventually becoming a singing waiter and competing in amateur shows. Told his name was too ethnic, he picked the stage name Joe Bari but ignored advice to get a nose job. “In those days you had to be like an 8-by-10 photograph,” says Bennett. “But I realized you have to be yourself.”

Drafted into the Army in 1944, he was stationed in Germany the following year, where he assisted in the liberation of a concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany. Bigotry, however, wasn’t confined to the camps. Once, when Bennett tried having dinner with a friend, a black soldier, in the mess hall, a white officer cut off his corporal’s stripes and threw the men out. “Within a half hour,” recalls Bennett of his punishment, “I was digging American soldiers’ bodies from a common grave and putting them into coffins. It was horrible.”

Three years after his discharge in 1946, Bennett landed a job opening for singer Pearl Bailey at a Manhattan club where he met Bob Hope. “What’s your name?” asked Hope. “My stage name is Joe Bari,” Bennett replied. “I don’t like that,” said Hope. “What’s your real name?” “Anthony Dominick Benedetto,” said Bennett. “No, that’s too long for the marquee,” said Hope. “Let’s call you Tony Bennett.” Soon, Hope, who admired Bennett’s singing, took him on tour. “Bob,” says Bennett, “taught me how to walk onstage, the rudiments of packing and to make sure I tipped the maids and bellhops.”

In 1950, Mitch Miller, then head of A&R at Columbia Records, heard Bennett’s demo and offered him a contract. Several releases later, Bennett scored nationally with “Because of You,” a 1951 No. 1 hit. “Women were crazy about his voice,” says Rosemary Clooney, his friend and frequent co-headliner. “We had screamers in the audience.”

But Bennett was spoken for. In July 1951 he met Patricia Beech, a recent high school graduate, at a Cleveland show and married her the following year. By the mid-’50s his circle of musical acquaintances included the likes of Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Sinatra. “Frank would finish his performance at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and have a jam session in the lounge,” says Bennett. “He’d bring everybody onstage—Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis. It was madness.”

Bennett’s ascent continued, peaking with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1962. “It’s my favorite song,” he says. “It’s allowed me world citizenship.” But as his career soared he traveled constantly, and his family ties to Patricia and their sons, Danny (now 44 and Bennett’s manager) and Daegal (43, a recording studio owner), began fraying. In 1965 he and Patricia separated. “Tony told me recently if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn’t have settled down,” says his sister Mary Chiappa, 78. “He felt he couldn’t give his kids the attention they needed.”

Prior to the divorce in 1971, Bennett was involved with aspiring actress Sandra Grant, who became pregnant with his daughter Joanna, now 29 and an actress. They married in 1971 and three years later had another girl, Antonia, 24, an aspiring singer. But after they moved to Los Angeles, Bennett wandered into the fast lane. “I got into partying and started doing drugs,” says Bennett. “A little pot and cocaine, no more than that. It was wrong, but it happened to everybody I know.”

Meanwhile, after years of clashing over material, he left Columbia in 1971 and later formed an unsuccessful jazz label. Mounting debt, a hefty tax bill and his mother’s death in 1977 compounded his unhappiness. Then in the late ’70s, Bennett hit bottom while soaking in a tub. “I saw that clear, yellow peaceful plane that everybody who mentions a near-death experience sees,” he says of his cocaine-and-marijuana-induced stupor. Sandra revived him by pounding his chest and rushed him to the hospital. Resolving to give up drugs, Bennett saved his life but not his marriage, which soon ended. “The divorces were horrid,” he says. “You make wrong decisions about your life. I’m lucky I straightened it out.”

Weeks after the tub incident, Bennett, financially strapped and no longer a hitmaker, sought professional guidance from his son Danny, then a musician, who revived his father’s career by introducing his music to a college-age crowd. By the mid-’80s, Bennett was performing 200 nights a year, crawling out of debt and enjoying a new bond with his son. “I think Tony wanted very much to have a family,” says Danny. “But the life of an entertainer is hard. When opportunities come up to do something, it’s hard to say no.”

Still on an upswing with increasingly younger fans, Bennett had an epiphany in 1992. “He said, ‘I think I could be really good on MTV,’ ” recalls Danny, who arranged his appearance at the 1993 Video Music Awards, where Bennett cut up onstage with alternative rockers Flea and Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 1994 he returned to MTV for his Unplugged CD and TV special with Elvis Costello and k.d. lang, winning an Album of the Year Grammy for the effort.

Personally too, he has gone through a renaissance of sorts. At one of his concerts 10 years ago, he met Susan Crow, a thirtysomething social studies teacher, and the two have been together ever since. Bennett isn’t bothered by the age difference. “She has a rare talent that makes me feel like it’s the first week I’ve met her,” he says. While he doesn’t rule out remarriage, for now he lives alone in a sprawling Central Park South Manhattan apartment where he rehearses on his grand piano, indulges his passion for representational and impressionistic painting and plots his future. “Here I am, 72,” he says. “And instead of retiring, I feel like I’m starting out.”

Jeremy Helligar

Joanne Fowler in New York City

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