Tony Bennett, who died on July 21, 2023 at age 96, had come a long way since growing up poor in Queens, New York, during the Great Depression. Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926 to Italian immigrants, Bennett's father was a grocer who died when Tony was 10 years old. It wasn't long before he started helping out the family by singing while waiting tables.
Like many people and many families, the Benedettos' lives were forever changed by World War II. Bennett turned 18 in 1944 and was drafted into the U.S. Army. By March 1945, the young soldier was deploying to Europe with the 63rd Infantry Division, replacing casualties lost in the Battle of the Bulge. In his 1998 autobiography "The Good Life," he called the war a "front row seat in hell."
Bennett wrote that he spent his time on the freezing battlefields digging into foxholes as German 88-millimeter flak guns rained death down on him and his unit. On March 15, 1945, the 63rd Infantry Division assaulted the Siegfried Line. It took them five days to breach the defenses east of Saarbrucken.
The 63rd fought its way across Germany, leaving a path of "blood and fire" through Worms, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Gunzburg and Landsberg. It earned a collective seven Presidential Unit Citations and captured more than 21,000 enemy soldiers. From April 24-27, 1945, Bennett was among the soldiers who liberated the Kaufering Concentration Camp, the largest subcamp of the notorious Dachau complex.
As the liberating U.S. Army approached, more than 10,000 prisoners were at Kaufering. Many of those were transported to Dachau itself before the Americans arrived. Most of them were forcibly marched to other camps. Many of those who stayed behind were slaughtered. When soldiers like Bennett arrived, they found 500 charred corpses strewn out on the ground.
World War II in Europe was over within days after the liberation of the Kaufering camp. Cpl. Benedetto, as Bennett was then known, was sent to Mannheim as part of the Allied occupation force of postwar Germany. It was there he first picked up the microphone to sing jazz standards with Army band units.
He adopted the stage name Joe Bari and began singing with the 314th Army Special Services Band. He couldn't sing under his own name, because he'd been demoted to private and reassigned to the Graves Registration Service for dining with a Black friend at a time when the Army was still segregated.
It just so happened that Bennett ran into an old friend, Frank Smith, while they were both stationed in Mannheim. They had dinner together on Thanksgiving Day, when an Army captain walked into the hotel restaurant. The officer ripped his stripes off and put him on gravedigging detail. It lasted only a week before a colonel learned about it and sent Bennett to an orchestra.
After returning home and leaving the Army, Bennett studied bel canto singing at the American Theater Wing, using his GI Bill benefits while working a day job operating an elevator. He took his singing under the name "Joe Bari" into the nightclubs of New York City by night.
One night, singer Pearl Bailey saw his act and asked him to open for her at the Greenwich Village Inn. When he did, actor and comedian Bob Hope happened to be in the audience. Hope met with the young singer and told him they would perform together in Hollywood, but there was just one problem: His name was no good.
"He asks what my real name is," Bennett later recalled. "I say Anthony Benedetto. That doesn't do it for him, either. So he goes out and says to the audience, 'And here's a new singer, Tony Bennett!' He had to introduce me twice, 'cause I didn't know who he was talking about."
A little training paid by the GI Bill and one chance opening led to a career spanning seven decades, millions of records sold and 20 Grammy Awards.
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