Tony Bennett Departs the Good Life: Great American Artist, Liberator, Civil Rights Activist

Tony Bennett, who died on July 21 at the age of 96, is known for his 1962 hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and more recently, for duets with Sting, Billy Joel, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Lady Gaga and many others. As people should know, it was a close call whether the 20-time Grammy winner would have a chance for a career in music or anything else.

In November 1944, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, 18, was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training. By the end of 1944, the infantryman shipped out to Le Havre, France, and found himself in the 255th Infantry Regiment, 63rd Infantry Division, replacement troops for those killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

That battle claimed more than 80,000 U.S. casualties, including 19,246 dead and 23,000 American troops taken prisoner. Benedetto thought he would die, perhaps in one of the foxholes he dug in the frigid ground, but the young soldier prevailed.

In March of 1945, he fought to take back towns in house-to-house combat. His last mission was to liberate a concentration camp near Dachau, a horrifying experience. The soldier found relief in a USO show fronted by Bob Hope. That tipped the decision for him to go into show business.

After the war, Benedetto was transferred to a special unit to entertain the remaining soldiers, singing under the name Joe Bari with an Army band. The singer again encountered Bob Hope, who came up with the stage name Tony Bennett, soon to make his mark in recording. The veteran had an ear for songs people wanted to hear.

In 1953, Bennett recorded “Stranger in Paradise,” based on a melody from composer Alexander Borodin. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written for opera singer Claramae Turner but was never recorded. Bennett first performed the song in 1961 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The locals loved it, and a bartender told Tony that if he ever recorded that tune, he would be the first to buy it. The bartender would not be the last.

In 1963, Bennett came out with “I Wanna Be Around,” which showcased his mastery of dynamics and phrasing. That also comes through in “The Good Life,” from the same year. One measure, and you know it’s Tony. For another vocalist with this skill, check out Lou Rawls on “Rawls Sings Sinatra.”

As fans seem to recognize, great material is not enough if you don’t have the voice. Should that be doubted, check out rocker Rod Stewart on “The Great American Songbook.” Even with an all-star band, including Michael Brecker on saxophone, Rod fails to resonate. On the other hand, Rod can bust up a blues tune better than people might think.

Tony Bennett’s domain was the ballad, and no accident that he titled his autobiography, released in 1998, The Good Life. Readers follow the teenage conscript to the front lines of World War II.

For those who have seen combat, life is never the same, and Bennett emerged “completely opposed to war.” To his great credit, Tony never confused an anti-war stance with anti-Americanism, in the style of Henry Fonda’s daughter and other celebrities.

When Tony Bennett served, the U.S. military was still segregated. Bennett thought that was wrong, leading him to march alongside the Rev. Marin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Bennett took a stand, and his popularity never took a hit.

In his emeritus years, everybody wanted a piece of him. Check out Tony with Lady Gaga on “I Get a Kick Out of You,” released in 2021. Three years later, the artist, liberator and civil-rights activist leaves his good life behind.

According to the National World War II Museum, of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only 167,284 remained in 2022. The great Tony Bennett was one of them. Take a good look, people. You’re not likely to see, or hear, someone like that ever again.


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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Getty Images

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