Has there ever been a more purely likable pop figure than Tony Bennett?

During a career that began in the 1940s, Bennett, who died Friday at 96, maintained one mission, amicably and steadfastly. He didn’t chase trends; he didn’t defend himself either. Instead, he let listeners — and, in recent decades, much younger duet partners — come to him, generation after generation. He welcomed them to a repertoire of songs that he admired, knew intimately and willingly shared.

Bennett sang vintage pop standards, the pre-rock canon sometimes called the Great American Songbook. They are songs mostly about grown-up love, courtship, longing and fulfillment, with elegant rhymes and witty melodies that invite a bit of improvisation. He recorded with orchestras, with important jazz musicians, with jazz bands and, for more than 50 years, with the pianist and arranger Ralph Sharon and his trio. He’s always been unplugged – a simple fact that smartly rebooted his career when he played “MTV Unplugged” in 1994.

Bennett’s voice made the technical challenges of his songs evaporate. As a young man, he demonstrated his near-operational range and dynamic control in early recordings such as “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” from 1950. But he was not an old-fashioned crooner; his sense of swing was just as strong. And he understood that sheer virtuosity can keep listeners at bay. He soon revealed a grain in his voice that made it earthy and approachable, detracting from his precision. Very often, there was cheerful sagacity in his phrasing; he’ll punch out a note before the beat, like he can’t wait to sing it.

There was always an easy strength, a confident baritone underpinning, in his singing. When he had a big band behind him, he was easily brassy enough to hold his own. But he didn’t steamroll his songs. He always paid attention to lyrics. His signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” has two melodic peaks near the end. The first is on the line “When I get home”; he supports “home” and belittles it with longing in his vibrato, as if he feels the distance. Soon after comes “Your golden sun shall shine for me,” and he sings “sun” as if he knew he would revel in it.

Bennett’s long, long career has had its share of commercial ups and downs and fleeting record company pressures. As the 1960s drew to a close, he was persuaded to record recent pop hits on the album “Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!”, although he retained some dignity by putting lush orchestral arrangements behind songs like George Harrison’s. “Something.”

After changing labels—and, in the mid-1970s, starting his own short-lived but artistically rewarding label, Improv—Bennett returned to what he did best: singing standards with musicians who showed off their jazz potential. He made two albums with the harmony-probing pianist Bill Evans – “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album” (1975) and “Together Again” (1977), both piano-and-vocal duets only – are shining testaments to the way Bennett never took familiar songs for granted.

He was 67 when he recorded “MTV Unplugged” with Sharon’s trio and a guest appearance by Elvis Costello. It was a shrewd and satisfying move; Bennett became the great grandfather of pop music. Rock-hating Grammy voters seized their chance to give him his second album of the year award (after “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), and current rock and pop performers embraced the chance to sing with him and learn from him. Duet albums (with CD Lang, Diana Krall and Lady Gaga) and individual duet tracks (with, among many others, Aretha Franklin, BB King, Willie Nelson, Bono, Christina Aguilera, Queen Latifah and Amy Winehouse) explained how admired, durable, companionable and playful he was; even the awkward moments are endearing.

In later years, as his voice lowered and thickened, Bennett used these qualities to manifest mature perspectives. The slow version of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” which appears on the 2007 compilation, “Sings the American Songbook, Vol. 1,” is latter-day Bennett: a little raspy, a little shaky and gloriously fond, an affirmation not just of “tonight” but of long-term love. There’s a sad laugh as he sings, “That laugh that wrinkles your nose/Touches my foolish heart.” Those lyrics were written in 1936, and Bennett kept listening through each line, still getting closer to the song.

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