Tony Bennett (August 3, 1926 – July 21, 2023) was one of the most beloved jazz musicians of all time. Armed with a set of golden pipes and an even more golden heart, Bennett garnered near-universal admiration with a career spanning over seven decades. The landscape of music has shifted to become nearly unrecognizable since then, but Bennett never wavered in his commitment to imbuing familiar songs and standards with new meaning and artistry. From his early performances as a boy in Queens, to his Greenwich Village breakout, to the highest echelons of musical royalty, Bennett’s generous spirit, unflappable class, and true talent were constant.
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Long Island City in Queens to two working-class Italian parents. His father, Giovanni, was an often-ill grocer who had immigrated from Italy at the age of 11. His mother, a factory seamstress named Anna, journeyed to New York from Italy while stowed safely in her mother’s womb. Bennett credits his father with inspiring his love for music; Giovanni Benedetto would often sing Italian folk songs to his children. Bennett was trained in the bel canto style of singing at an early age, training which led to a performance at the opening of the Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge alongside Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at just ten years old.
The young songbird continued his musical education at the High School of Industrial Arts, but dropped out to help support his struggling family. Bennett found work as a copy boy for The Associated Press, as an elevator operator, and as a singing waiter. He was drafted into World War II shortly after his 18th birthday where he served in the infantry in Germany. He was also part of the occupying forces upon Germany’s surrender. He returned to New York in 1946 and resumed his musical work.
There are disputes over when exactly Bennett’s big break came, but the singer himself credits a fateful night in Greenwich Village with jumpstarting his storied career. In 1949, Bennett was an occasional performer at the Greenwich Village Inn (5 Sheridan Square,) a small nightclub in decline. Future Tony-winner Pearl Bailey was the starring headliner at the venue, but said she would only accept the gig if Bennett, still performing as “Joe Bari,” remained on the bill.
Soon the Greenwich Village Inn was visited by comedian Bob Hope, who was there to see Pearl Bailey’s performance. However, it was the opening act that caught Hope’s eye. He liked Joe Bari’s set so much that he invited the crooner to open for him at the Paramount Theatre on the condition that he change his stage name. Hope disliked “Joe Bari” but insisted that “Anthony Benedetto” was far too long to fit on a marquee. Hope christened the singer “Tony Bennett,” and the name stuck.
Bennett’s career took off from there. He collaborated with many of the greatest performers of his time, including Frank Sinatra, who he was lucky enough to call both mentor and friend. Bennett reached the height of stardom in 1962 when he released “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The tune became Bennett’s signature song.
While flourishing in the jazz circles of the age, Bennett witnessed the blatant racism that many of his peers in the entertainment industry faced. Nat King Cole was not allowed to sit down in the very dining room he had performed in, while Duke Ellington was forbidden from attending the party at the hotel where he shared top billing with Bennett. These injustices, along with a few racist incidents during his time in the military, spurred Bennett to get involved with the Civil Rights movement. At the urging of activist and artist Harry Belafonte, Bennett joined in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for civil rights. They were joined by Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and Joan Baez among others. The entertainers performed on makeshift stages built from coffin crates and plywood, singing to crowds of fellow marchers and hoping to rally media attention. Bennett remained a supporter of civil rights and liberal-Democratic ideals for his entire life.
Popular music surely transformed since Bennett got his start, but that fact never deterred him from cherishing the classics. Generation after generation, he welcomed both fans and fellow artists into his repertoire of songs, inspiring them with his joy and talent all the while.