Famous Italian Americans Pop Culture

He Taught Us to Live a “Good Life:” Anthony Dominick Benedetto

The world lost a true icon yesterday. One of the last of the golden crooners. I am talking about Anthony Dominick Benedetto. But to most of the world, he was Tony Bennett.

Born to Calabrian parents in New York, Benedetto showed a God-given gift for music and art at a young age. He also grew up in poverty. His father passed away at the age of 10 and despite doing well at the New York’s School of Industrial Art, he dropped out to help support his family. Sadly that was often the case for children of Italian immigrants who never had the opportunity to graduate high school.

When World War II broke out, Benedetto answered the call and joined the Army; one of the approximately 10 percent of the entire armed forced that were Italian at the time. His service took him from Fort Dix (in my beloved New Jersey) to France and later into Germany. In January 1945, he was assigned as a replacement infantryman to the 255th Infantry Regiment of the 63rd Infantry Division, a unit filling in for the heavy losses suffered in the Battle of the Bulge. In March 1945, he joined the front line of what he would later describe as a “front-row seat in Hell.” At the war’s conclusion he was involved in the liberation of the Kaufering concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau. Those experiences played a major role in his decision to become a pacifist.

After his discharge from the Army in 1946, Benedetto studied at the American Theatre Wing on the GI Bill. He was taught the bel canto singing discipline, which helped shape his unique singing style. It was during a gig in Greenwich Village he was approached by Bob Hope and was asked to tour with him. It was also Hope who suggested he “simplify” his name to “Tony Bennett.”

It wasn’t uncommon for Italian immigrants to “Americanize” their names, especially those with a want to perform. Some include Bobby Darin (Walden Robert Cassotto), New Jersey’s favorite daughter Connie Francis (Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero), and Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti).

Benedetto was one of the many great Italian crooners that had the wonderful ability to bring the Great American Songbook to life.

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga; By marcen27 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121587786

He had many phases of his multi-decade career which gave the generations an appreciation for the classics and his unique jazz style. One of his greatest fans, and a loving friend, is another Italian American – Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta; but most of the world knows her as Lady Gaga. Benedetto simply called her “Lady.”

At a time when she was feeling low about her career, it was Benedetto that gave her the inspiration to keep going. She has often said “he saved my life.”

They became a wonderful duo, releasing multiple albums and bringing their wonderful style to live audiences. Benedetto’s last public performance was with his “Lady” in August 2021.

He has remained a favorite son of the Italian American community and he never forgot his roots. The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) honored him with the Leonardo da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award in Music at their 46th Anniversary Gala in 2021.

I had the opportunity to see him once, though he wasn’t the “main attraction.” My husband and I were at a Billy Joel concert at Madison Square Garden when he was the surprise guest. The crowd went absolutely wild when he walked on stage. He sang New York State of Mind and it was just perfect.

His diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease several years ago shocked and saddened all who loved him. We knew that “long goodbye” had begun. He fought with dignity and class, still working until that last public concert in 2021. No matter how that terrible disease affected the rest of his mind, his music was still perfectly tuned.

He was a true renaissance man. A singer, an artist, a veteran, a patriot, an American of Italian descent. And we get to claim him as part of our tribe.

My husband summed it up perfectly. He’s singing for the real Chairman of the Board now. And I’m sure it is one great show. Grazie Anthony.

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