Tony Bennett—who died Friday at the age of 96—reportedly sang one last 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 downplay 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 the liberation of 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 out 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.