War Hero: Tony Bennett

November 10, 2009 | Comments (0) | by T.R.

We often throw the term 'War Hero' around loosely at the Saloon. Today we assign that designation to one of the great crooners of our time, who just so happens to have truly earned it.

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in New York City in 1926. Tony's talents in painting and singing were apparent at an early age, earning him enrollment at New York's High School of Industrial Art. At the age of 18, he was drafted into the United States Army, where he served as an infantry rifleman. Bennett was stationed in France and Germany during the waning days of World War II. He would later describe the horrors of war in his autobiography, including the struggles brought on by the harsh winter landscape, and the experience of house-to-house combat while driving back German soldiers. When the war ended, he remained in Germany for a period of time, assisting in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp.

When Bennett returned to the States, he picked up on his vocal training. He opened for Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village in 1949, where he was spotted by Bob Hope. This was the break Tony needed, as he was soon after signed to Columbia Records. A string of chart-topping hits would follow throughout the 1950's, including two standout albums in which Bennett collaborated with the Count Basie Orchestra. "I Left My Heart in San Francisco", widely recognized as Bennett's most popular song, drew acclaim after it's 1962 release.

In the mid-1960's the musical landscape began to change, and Bennett found it increasingly difficult to wade these new waters. He went to great lengths in an attempt to change his professional fortunes over the next 15 years. A failed record label, a relocation to London, and a near-fatal overdose brought Tony face-to-face with the 1980's and some hard choices. He brought his two sons into the fold in a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his career. Gone were the residences in Las Vegas; in was a new deal with Columbia, and the embracing of popular culture.

The youth of America, weened on rock 'n' roll, had until this point been relatively oblivious to the standards genre. An appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, along with an MTV Unplugged recording, endeared Bennett to this new audience. The record that resulted from his Unplugged session went on to earn him an Album of the Year Grammy, and went a long way in rejuvenating his career.

Aside from being known as one of the great male vocalists of the past century, Bennett has delved into other passions. He was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. In the same vein, he would refuse offers to perform in apartheid South Africa.

Perhaps what he would prefer to best be known for, however, is his painting. His works are featured in numerous galleries throughout the world. He was the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby, and was commissioned by the UN for two paintings. The UN would go on to honor him with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Humanitarian Award in 2006.

In total, Bennett has won 15 Grammy Awards and two Emmys. These, however, are mere symbols of the greater work that he will one day leave us with. Tony Bennett, the vocalist, entertainer, human rights activist, soldier, and multi-talented artist, is a true American treasure. Most of all, he is a legitimate War Hero, of the caliber that only Thunder Matt's Saloon can properly recognize.

*Biographical facts were largely culled from Wikipedia. We can trust that thing now, right?