Tony Bennett, the timeless crooner and Army veteran, passed away on July 21 just a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday. His illustrious career won him 20 Grammy Awards and a recent resurgence in popularity through his musical collaboration with pop sensation Lady Gaga. He broke the Guiness World Record for oldest person to release an album of new material at age 95. Like many of his generation, Bennett served in the military during World War II.
“The main thing I got out of the military was the realization that I am completely opposed to war,” he wrote in his autobiography, “The Good Life.” “It’s a joke that they make ‘horror’ movies about things like Dracula and Godzilla, and they make ‘adventure’ movies about war. War is far more horrifying than anything anyone could dream up.”
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. “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 under the G.I. Bill. He was discovered by Bob Hope and signed on with Columbia Records. Tony had his first number one hit in 1951 with the song, “Because of You.”
In his seven decades as an entertainer, Bennett became 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.
Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016 with a slow decline. He delivered his final live performance in August of 2021 with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. He was also a painter. He is survived by his third wife, Susan Benedetto, four children, and nine grandchildren.