Anthony (Antonio) Dominick Benedetto, born Aug. 3, 1926 in Queen, New York, is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. He’s sharing his good fortune it with a host of his closest friends-and you amass a lot of friends as an 80-year-old icon.
He started out in his career early by giving a singing performance at the opening of the Triborough Bridge at the age of 10. He continued studying music and art through school, but had to drop out at age 16 to help support his family, where dad was a grocer and mom was a seamstress. Tony didn’t stray far, however. He earned his living as a singing waiter in an Italian restaurant.
Like many celebrities of his generation, he served in World War II; he was, in fact, inducted into the army in 1944 where he served on the front line of the battle until 1945. It had a profound effect on the artistic genius. He is quoted as saying, “”It gave me a social conscience. And the war itself made me a pacifist; I just know that every gun in the world should melt somehow and as soon as possible. But that looks impossible now.”
After the war ended, he sang with the Army band, using the stage name Joe Bari, until he was officially discharged in 1946. Afterwards, he helped pay for his education with the GI Bill, while he went back to his old job as a singing waiter.
He showed his artistic side when he got into a discussion on what sort of cultural gains have been made by Americans. He likened it to other countries, and noted that the United States, as a young country by comparison to the others, really had only contributed one thing culturally-and that is Jazz. As with most artistic endeavors, Bennett complained, Jazz is sorely underappreciated by Americans. He said it would be put in the same field as Monet as time passed.
Bennett’s star catapulted during the 50s and 60s. In 1950 he was signed to Columbia Records and made his first big hit “Because of You”, produced by Mitch Miller with orchestration by Percy Faith. It sold over a million copies, reaching #1 in 1951 pop charts. He hosted the Tony Bennett Show in 1956, taking over the format set forth by Perry Como.
Then he hit a brick wall. He went through a divorce, then a series of professional failures. The culmination came when Columbia Records forced him to change his image, saying they were afraid the Beatles and those of the British Invasion would take over the market. They had Tony release an album that featured a psychedelic cover. The results were disastrous, and he left the label in 1972.
It would be two decades before Bennett could begin climbing back out of the crater created by Rock n Roll during the late ’60 and 70s. During that time, bankruptcy, IRS woes and drug addiction ruled much of his life and career. He overdosed on cocaine in 1979.
Then he started the long climb up the hill, both personally and privately. He began by asking his sons, Danny and Dae, for help. Danny took over as his manager. They decided the wisest thing would be for Bennett to return to his classic roots, which he did with the Great American Songbook. He signed back on with Columbia Records, and came out of it all with two gold records. Danny took his dad far away from all things Vegas, and put him back into his tidy tuxedo and started booking him onto college campuses. Bennett gained the adulation of a younger audience in the 20- to 30-year-old range which revived his career.
The ride back was great. He collaborated with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and k.d. Lange, got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was awarded a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award and in February, 2006, took home his 11th Grammy Award.
Tony originally used the stage name Joe Bari. It was Bob Hope who suggested that he change it to Tony Bennett.
I Left My Heart in San Francisco, was Bennett’s trademark song, even though it didn’t go to #1 on the charts. He didn’t sing it in public for decades, then sang it live this year on The Tonight Show.
When Tony married his first wife, 2,000 female fans dressed in black, and showed up at the ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Bennett is an accomplished artist. He studied art along with music until he had to drop out to support the family at age 16. He has an art studio in New York. He sketches every day, even while on tour. His work has been commissioned by the Kentucky Derby and the United Nations.
During his absence from performing on U.S. stages, he lived in England, and performed for the Queen.
Although he wasn’t part of The Rat Pack, Bennett was a close friend of Frank Sinatra. He founded The Frank Sinatra High School of Performing Arts in Queens, in honor of his friend.
Bennet was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997.