In Celebration of Tony Bennett's 90th, 10 Other Nonagenarian Working Musicians
Paul McCartney is 74. Mick Jagger is 73. Diana Ross is 72. But they’re kids compared to a select group of musicians who are or were still active all the way into their 90s. The legendary Tony Bennett joined their ranks when he celebrated his 90th birthday on Wednesday (Aug. 3). Bennett is as active as ever, still recording albums (his Cheek to Cheek set with Lady Gaga topped the Billboard 200 in 2014, making him the oldest artist to ever hit No. 1 on this chart) and touring (he’s playing the Fox Theatre in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 12). On Dec. 20, NBC will air a two-hour special saluting Bennett’s 90th birthday.
But the New York-born crooner isn’t the only musician who has kept on working into his 90s. Here are 10 of Bennett’s fellow nonagenarians who have also been active in their 10th decade on Earth.
Les Paul (June 9, 1915-Aug. 12, 2009), 94
There might not be rock and roll if it weren’t for Paul, who built one of the world’s first solid-body electric guitars in 1940. Eric Clapton started playing a Gibson Les Paul guitar in 1965 and used one on many recordings by Cream. Among the many other famous musicians who owned a Les Paul guitar: Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Slash, Pete Townshend, George Harrison, Duane Allman, Bob Marley, Joe Perry, Ace Frehley, Billie Joe Armstrong and Todd Rundgren. Paul is also known for recording innovations, such as overdubbing, multi-tracking and phasing. He recorded a string of hits with his wife (from 1949 to 1964), Mary Ford, including “How High the Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios.” Paul recorded his final album at age 93 and played his last live show just a few weeks before his death at age 94.
Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919-Jan. 27, 2014), 94
Four months before he died, folk singer/activist Pete Seeger performed at the 2013 edition of Farm Aid, singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Although Seeger did record more material from other songwriters, including Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” (the 1962 song became the theme song for the television series Weeds in 2005), he also wrote modern-day folk songs such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “If I Had a Hammer,” and his adaptation of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” from the Book of Ecclesiastes gave the Byrds a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 in 1965.
Ravi Shankar (April 7, 1920-Dec. 11, 2012), 92
The musician born in Varanasi in Northern India in 1920 became the world’s most famous sitar player, influencing many others, including George Harrison, who played sitar on Beatles tracks like “Norwegian Wood,” "Love You To,” “Within You and Without You” and “The Inner Light,” as well as on his own solo song “When We Was Fab.” Shankar released his first album in 1956; in 2012 his The Living Room Sessions Part 1 won a Grammy for Best World Album. Shankar was still performing that year, until shortly before his death in December.
Eubie Blake (Feb. 7, 1887-Feb. 12, 1983), 96
Ragtime pianist Blake continued to perform and record until shortly before his death at age 96. One of the songwriter’s best-known compositions is “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. Blake and Noble Sissle wrote the music and lyrics for the 1921 show, which had a Broadway revival in 2016. Blake’s songs were collected on The 86 Years of Eubie Blake, an album released in 1969. The double-LP features 11 of his own compositions and his recordings of works by other songwriters.
Charles Aznavour (May 22, 1924), 92
It would be difficult to find a French-born singer with a longer, more successful career than Charles Aznavour. He recorded his first studio album in 1953, and his most recent work was issued in 2015. His “farewell tour” commenced in 2006, but he still performs live at age 92, with 2016 shows in Tokyo, Osaka, Barcelona and Marbella and upcoming dates in Verona and Antwerp. He has written more than 600 songs, starred in over 60 films and recorded in eight languages.
Carol Channing (Jan. 31, 1921), 95
Carol Channing won a Tony for playing matchmaker Dolly Levi in the original 1964 Broadway staging of Hello, Dolly! It’s her signature role, but she is also known for her motion-picture work, especially Thoroughly Modern Millie. In addition to her cast albums, she released a number of studio recordings, on labels as varied as Vanguard, DRG and Plantation. Her country LPs on that third imprint made her a labelmate of Jeannie C. Riley (“Harper Valley P.T.A."). She was 91 when she recorded the album True to the Red, White & Blue. Channing has played herself on various television shows, including The Nanny, Sesame Street, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List and RuPaul’s Drag Race; she was in her 90s when she starred on the latter two shows.
Dave Brubeck (Dec. 6, 1920-Dec. 5, 2012), 91
Brubeck is best known for “Take Five,” a rare jazz single to appear on the Hot 100 (peaking at No. 25 in 1961). The parent album, Time Out, sailed to No. 2 on the Billboard album chart. Recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors on his 89th birthday in 2009, Brubeck continued to perform into his 90s, with performances in 2010 and 2011. Formed in 1951, the Dave Brubeck Quartet played live dates through 2012.
Little Jimmy Dickens (Dec. 19, 1920-Jan. 2, 2015), 94
Dickens signed to Columbia Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry in the same year, 1948. He made his final appearance on the Opry stage in December 2014, at age 94. At the time, he was the oldest living member of the Opry. Dickens charted 19 titles on Billboard's country songs charts from 1949 to 1972, including eight top 10s. Of those, his biggest hit was "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” which spent two weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 1965.
Kay Starr (July 21, 1922), 94
Starr was the first female singer to top the Billboard singles chart in the rock era. She signed with Capitol in 1948 and had pre-rock hits like “Wheel of Fortune” and “Side by Side,” but then she moved to the RCA label and went to No. 1 in February 1956 with “Rock and Roll Waltz.” She returned to Capitol in 1961 and made her final appearance on the Hot 100 in 1962 with “Four Walls.” Starr turned 90 in 2012 and continues to perform.
Jon Hendricks (Sept. 16, 1921), 94
Famous for inventing “vocalese” (adding lyrics to instrumental songs), Hendricks is acclaimed for his work in the trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, as well as his own solo career. He is also known for his scat singing and for writing lyrics. He had a Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1965 as a songwriter when British pop singer Georgie Fame covered “Yeh Yeh,” originally an instrumental before Hendricks added words. The Ohio-born jazz musician appeared in a 2012 documentary about his former bandmate Annie Ross.