Anthony Dominick Benedetto is in his 90s and for the love of him, he still possesses a voice of velvet and satin as he croons to his audience in a sentimental tone. What’s more, he plans to keep doing what he’s been doing for the past six decades.
After John Benedetto emigrated from Podargoni in southern Italy and duly met his wife Anna Suraci, whose parents had also emigrated from Calabria, they bore a son in Astoria, Queens, New York City in 1926. They would name him Anthony Dominick.
Young Tony, his older brother John and his sister Mary grew up in relative poverty. Yet the children thrived under the love of their parents, John senior a grocer and Anna a seamstress. While listening to legendary singers like Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Joe Venuti, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, Tony was encouraged to appreciate art and literature as his father instilled in him, compassion for human adversity.
When Tony was 10 his father died leaving Anna to rear her three children but she was surrounded by loving relatives who were enamoured by Tony’s velvet voice. Nurtured, he attended the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan where he discovered he could pursue both passions, singing and painting. It was at school he became known as the class cartoonist whilst anticipating a career in commercial art.
But his life took him in another direction when at 13 he waited on tables in Italian restaurants and began earning a living singing. He quit school at 16 to help support his family whilst working through several low paying jobs. But his sights were set on a professional singing career which he had tasted in the early days when his uncle, a tap dancer in Vaudeville gave him a taste of show business.
However, it wasn’t to be until 1946 when he could truly pursue his passion for music. He was drafted into the United States Army in November of 1944 and joined the front line in what he would later describe as the “Front Row Seat In Hell.” It was a nightmare that remained permanent.
The first time Bennett sang in a nightclub was in 1946 at the Shangri-La in Astoria as Joe Bari, a stage name he’d chosen for himself. But his major break came in 1949 when he was noticed by Bob Hope in Greenwich Village. Hope heard him sing and later after the show met Bennett in his dressing room. He told Bennett he wasn’t impressed with the stage name and asked Bennett who he really was. It was at that moment after Tony told Hope he was Anthony Dominick Benedetto that his life would make a predestined turn. He would be known as Tony Bennett who went to the Paramount to sing with Bob Hope.
When the Sixties rolled into glaring view with its rock songs and loudly delivered lyrics, there was huge pressure on popular singers to conform and sing contemporary rock. Bennett thought the idea ludicrous but tried nevertheless. The results were shocking and Bennett released an album in 1970 called Tony Sings The Great Hits Of Today. It was accepted but Tony was not converting and resented coming under pressure. The very thought of emulating songs from the Beatles and others who had introduced trends of which many new groups were adapting, made Bennett physically ill.
It was during the approach toward the psychedelic stretch that would swallow the seventies that his marriage broke down in 1965. He tried hosting a television show and attempted further approaches to singing more of the Beatles material but his commercial success took its leave for two years and he found himself void of a recording contract.
In 1971 his divorce from his wife Patricia became final. He married actress Sandra Grant that same year and had two daughters Joanna in 1970 and Antonia in 1974. In 1979 Bennett called his sons Danny and Dae for help. He had survived a near-fatal cocaine overdose and disillusioned, told them it appeared no one wanted to listen to his music anymore.
Danny, with a business head on his shoulders, reorganised his father’s expenses and moved him back to New York away from Las Vegas and the overly strung lifestyle, where he booked him in small theatres. He became his father’s manager and together they wondered if they could introduce Tony’s music to a younger audience. He changed nothing and sang the way he always had, introducing songs from Cole Porter and Gershwin. The unfamiliar songs wowed his audience. It had worked and his career made a comeback.
Bennett has sold millions of records worldwide, gone platinum and gold and has received seventeen Grammy Awards. In 2007 when Tony Bennett: An American Classic won seven Emmy Awards it was due to his beautifully delivered tunes of which he had several.
Chart toppers included “Because of You”, “Rags to Riches”, “The Good Life”, “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs me?)” and his signature tune, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” which earned him two Grammy Awards.
Throughout the decades from the 50’s through the 90’s, he experienced sold out audiences and wonderful reviews wherever he performed. But it was during 2006, his 80thyear when he released Duets: An American Classicas something only a handful of artists had brought into the new millennium. It was so successful that in 2011 as he celebrated his 85thBirthday, Bennett released Duets II.
WhenDuets II achieved number 1 on the Billboard Album charts, Tony Bennett was hailed as the only artist at the age of 85 to have ever achieved such a stance in all of the history of recorded music. His album won two Grammys and as 2012 touched down marking the 50thAnniversary of the recording and release of “I left My Heart In San Francisco”, his son Danny Bennett created a documentary entitled The Zen On Bennett. By the end of 2012, Tony Bennett wrote his fourth book Life Is A Gifta collection of personal philosophies he had learned and experienced from throughout his long and gifted life.
Even whilst Bennett continues to tour internationally, he finds time every day to paint. And many of his paintings have been exhibited in galleries around the world. In the interim when his father taught him compassion for those less fortunate than he, Bennett has raised millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. His other commitments include social justice and environmental concerns.
As Bennett continues his medical check ups, his doctor confirms, “There’s not a thing wrong with you. Just keep doing it.”
He quietly reminisces as he explains, “I believe in the fact that it’s a gift to be alive. I love the fact that I’m blessed to be on earth, and that my whole life, I love what I do.
Indeed, when it’s his time to leave this planet he will have done so knowing he made people feel good.