Born and raised in Astoria to an Italian-American family, Bennett began singing at an early age. Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926, in Astoria, Queens, New York. Coming of age during the Great Depression, he experienced more difficulty at age 10, when his father passed away. He fought in the final stages of World War II as a U.S. Army infantryman in Europe. After the war he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and studied singing at the American Theatre Wing. During this period, his vocal coach Mimi Spear offered some advice that he took to heart: Don’t imitate other singers; emulate instrumentalists instead. Afterward, he developed his singing technique, signed with Columbia Records and had his first number-one popular song with “Because of You” in 1951. Several top hits such as “Rags to Riches” followed in the early 1950s. He then refined his approach to encompass jazz singing.
He reached an artistic peak in the late 1950s with albums such as The Beat of My Heart and Basie Swings, Bennett Sings. In 1962, Bennett recorded his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. His career and his personal life experienced an extended downturn during the height of the rock music era. Bennett staged a comeback in the late 1980s and 1990s, putting out gold record albums again and expanding his reach to the MTV Generation while keeping his musical style intact.
He remains a popular and critically praised recording artist and concert performer in the 2010s. He has won 19 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented in 2001) and two Emmy Awards, and was named an NEA Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree. Bennett has sold over 50 million records worldwide. He later teamed up with artists such as Lady Gaga for the highly successful Duets and Duets II albums, adding to his collection of Grammy Awards even as he approached his 90th birthday.
Along with his music, Bennett has nurtured a lifelong love of visual art. His paintings, which he signs with his given name of Anthony Benedetto, have been featured in the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1999, he founded Benedetto Arts LLC to oversee this aspect of his artistic career.
Bennett’s first book, Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen (1996), features a collection of his portraits, landscapes and still-lifes rendered in various mediums. He followed with The Good Life: The Autobiography of Tony Bennett (1998), Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art & Music (2007) and Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett (2012).
Along with his 18 Grammy Award wins, Bennett has been honoured by the Kennedy Center and the United Nations. He has also been involved in various charitable causes, and in 1999 he co-founded the nonprofit Exploring the Arts alongside Susan Crow, who would eventually become his third wife.
Bennett’s radicalism stems from his life changing experiences in World War II when he was demoted for standing up to bigotry, captured SS Troops, and helped liberate a Nazi internment camp. Bennett was sent to overseas and assigned to the Seventh Army, 63rd Infantry Division, also known as the “Blood and Fire” Division. Moving through France and into Germany, Bennett served on the front lines. Among other accomplishments, his team “captured a bunch of SS troopers” and his 255th Regiment eventually freed the prisoners of a concentration camp. The legendary crooner and literal Nazi fighter Bennett tells it in his own words:
“It was thirty miles south of the notorious Dachau camp, on the opposite bank of the Lech River, which we were approaching. The river was treacherous and difficult to cross because there were still German soldiers protecting it, but we wouldn’t let anything stop us from freeing those prisoners. Many writers have recorded what it was like in the concentration camps much more eloquently than I ever could, so I won’t even try to describe it. Just let me say I’ll never forget the desperate faces and empty stares of the prisoners as they wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds. Once we took possession of the camp, we immediately got food and water to the survivors, but they had been brutalized for so long that at first they couldn’t believe that we were there to help them and not to kill them.”
The troops were also able to liberate 63rd Division soldiers who’d been captured and taken to Landberg, according to Bennett, who wrote, “After seeing such horrors with my very eyes, it angers me that some people insist there were no concentration camps.” But that wasn’t Bennett’s only wartime experience when it came to witnessing bigoted treatment and deciding to act, and — unlike his military-ordered mission at Landberg — it arose from Bennett’s own inability to stay silent about it.
As retold in a 2012 segment from The Rosie Show, Rosie O’Donnell asks Tony Bennett an incident in which he was demoted after sharply rebuking his commanding officer for saying racist things to Bennett’s friend, a black man from back in New York, while insisting he leave the segregated mess hall and take his meal in the kitchen. After Bennett chewed the sergeant out, the man cut up Bennett’s army stripes and “spat on them,” and Bennett was then assigned to dig up soldiers’ mass graves and prepare the bodies to ship home.
“I just considered bigotry the most significant…very ignorant, you know? It has to stop. ‘Cause we’re living in the greatest country, the only country with every religion, every nationality…and we should respect everybody’s backgrounds,” Bennett told O’Donnell.
Bennett continued to support equal rights, marching alongside Harry Belafonte to Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King in 1965.
To give a sense of the climate in the south at that time, the woman who drove him to the airport post-march, Viola Liuzzo, was murdered by KKK members later that night while shuttling more marchers out of town.
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