CelebVet: Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett, the timeless crooner whose career won him 20 Grammy Awards, will celebrate his 96th birthday next month. He’s currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity through his musical collaboration with pop sensation Lady Gaga. And like many of his generation, Bennett served in the military during World War II.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, the singer was raised in Queens, NY. His father passed away when he was 10, around the same time as when Bennett sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge and began gaining early recognition of his vocal talent. As a teen, he worked as a singing waiter to help support his family.
Bennett was drafted into the Army in November 1944.
“I went down to the induction center and stood in line with a bunch of other eighteen-year-olds, wondering what was going to happen to me,” Bennett wrote in his autobiography, “The Good Life.” “When my name was called, I went up to the desk, and the induction officer asked me if I preferred the Army or the Navy. I said, ‘Navy,’ and the guy stamped, ‘Army’. I thought, ‘Oh, boy, so that’s the way it’s going to be.’ Little did I know what I was in for.”
He did his basic training at Fort Dix and Fort Robinson. 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 major losses suffered in the Battle of the Bulge. He has written and spoken publicly about the bigotry he experienced and witnessed in the military during those years.
One day in 1945, he invited a black soldier to sit with him at lunch. He was promptly demoted. A higher officer took his stripes off his uniform and spat on them. He was reassigned to dig up dead bodies as punishment.
“This was another unbelievable example of the degree of prejudice that was so widespread in the army during World War II,” Bennett said. “Black Americans have fought in all of America’s wars, yet they have seldom been given credit for their contribution, and segregation and discrimination in civilian life and in the armed forces has been a sad fact of life. It was actually more acceptable to fraternize with the German troops than it was to be friendly with a fellow Black American soldier,” he recalled.
Bennet served until 1946 and was awarded a Bronze Star Medal. Upon returning to civilian life, he decided to pursue the performing arts and trained at the American Theater Wing. He signed on with Columbia Records and had his first number one hit in 1951 with the song, “Because of You.”
In the seven decades since he began his singing career, Bennett has become a household name for classic songs like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and standards from the Great American Songbook, including “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Fly Me To the Moon.”
He was the recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Award, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Humanitarian Award, was a Kennedy Center Honoree, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Until recently, Bennett was still accumulating accolades. Last summer with the release of his collaborative album with Lady Gaga, “Love for Sale,” Bennett broke the Guinness World Records title for being the oldest person to release an album of new material at the age of 95 years and 60 days. He also became the second-oldest winner of a Grammy through their work in “Love for Sale.”
Bennett was diagnosed with dementia last year and delivered his final performance in August of 2021 with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. He is also a painter, a father to four children and four grandchildren.