Remembering Singer & WWII Veteran Tony Bennett

(Photo courtesy of TonyBennett.com)

In Tony Bennett, the world has lost one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. But before he took on his stage name and became the internationally renowned crooner we all know, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was just another 18 year-old from Queens, NY drafted into World War II, deployed to Europe with the 63rd Infantry Division. 

In November 1944, just three months after he turned 18, Bennett was drafted. He completed his training at Fort Dix, NJ and Fort Robinson, NE before being sent to Europe with his unit to support Allied forces who had been suffering significant losses. Those losses continued after he arrived. Half of the replacement troops fell within the first three days of their arrival. One of the few who remained standing, Bennett trudged through France and Germany over the next few freezing-cold months, experiencing first-hand the horrors of war. As fighting came to an end, one of Bennett’s final wartime missions was to help liberate Kaufering concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany, the largest subcamp of the infamous Dachau. Of the experience, Bennett wrote in his autobiography that he “saw things no human being should ever see.”

After Germany’s May 1945 surrender, Bennett was one of the troops ordered to stay on as part of the postwar occupation. That’s when his singing career really began. Like something out of a movie, Bennett was singing in the shower, and a passing officer heard his voice. The officer was taken with his vocal abilities and suggested he join a band being formed by the 255th Regiment. From there he was assigned to Special Services, which handled entertaining the troops. 

(Photo courtesy of TonyBennett.com)

While in Special Services, Bennett was promoted to corporal, but shortly after, he was demoted. The “transgression” was one that speaks to the darkness of the times. He invited a friend, Frank Smith, to dine with him on Thanksgiving. The problem? Smith was Black. During this period, segregation was still very much gripping the American mind and spirit, even overseas in the midst of post-WWII Europe. Bennett didn’t view the world or people that way, but many others did. When Bennett recounted the story, he noted that the officer who demoted him was extremely bigoted and determined to pull rank on him. The officer used a razor to cut off Bennett’s corporal stripes right there, and proceeded to spit on them and throw them on the floor. Bennett was also reassigned to exhume mass graves and prepare soldiers’ bodies for their return home. 

Bennett’s allyship for civil rights in America is well-documented. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, gave top billing to Black artists he toured with including Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and was known for treating everyone he encountered with respect, regardless of who they were or what they looked like. 

Before being discharged in 1946, Bennett joined the 314th Army Special Services Band. He sang under the name Joe Bari, which he had begun using while getting some paying work as a singer just before getting drafted. In fact, Bennett’s first recording, 1946’s “St. James Infirmary,” was made while he was serving! 

Upon his return stateside, Bennett reaped the benefits of the GI Bill, and was able to study bel canto singing at the American Theater Wing (which later became the Actors Studio), while working as an elevator operator. Within a few years, he was signed to Columbia Records, and launched what would become a historic and illustrious 8-decade career in the music industry. 

Bennett spanned genres and generations, recording with, to name just a few, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, and Queen Latifah. His firsts are the stuff of legend: his cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” became the first country song to crossover into a pop hit; he was the first white performer to record with Count Basie; he was the first solo male pop performer to headline the legendary Carnegie Hall. The awards and accolades are numerous, from Grammy Awards to honorary doctorates to a statue in his honor. He’s one of those rare celebrities that largely navigated life with minimal controversy, despite having some strong opinions to say the least. 

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Posted on July 21 2023 in Blog

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