Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926 in Astoria, Queens, New York to parents of Italian ancestry. His mother was born in America and his father emigrated from Italy in 1906. Like most of the children of emigrant families, who grew up during the depression, Anthony had a first-hand experience of poverty. Due to health problems related to a childhood in which he contracted rheumatic fever, his father John lost his ability to work when Anthony was a year old. He passed away nine years later, leaving Anthony’s mother Anna to raise, feed, and cloth her three small children. She did this by working as a dressmaker in a sweatshop in New York and earning one penny per dress.
Like his father, Anthony grew up with a love of the arts that sustained him during his childhood and beyond. He also grew up with an intense appreciation of family that has continued and grown even stronger over the years. It was, however, his great love of music, reinforced and rewarded by his immediate and extended family by the delight they experienced in hearing young Anthony sing, that held his passion and that ultimately became the driving force of his life. As a small boy, he was so distressed and saddened at seeing his mother come home every night with fingers that were bleeding as a result of the twelve daily hours that she spent as a seamstress that one day he promised her that when he grew up he was going to buy her a big beautiful house where she could live and would never have to work again.
Anthony kept that promise and he did buy her the house that she had always dreamed of having. Driven by both his love of music and his love for his mother, Anthony dedicated himself to fulfilling his vision of being a professional singer; not simply someone who could earn a living by singing, but someone who would become one of the most beloved performers in the world, whose voice was immediately recognizable and adored by millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people internationally. Anthony Benedetto achieved a level of fame and success in his personal, professional, and family life that was literally inconceivable to him when made that vow as a child. But the road to success was not without its obstacles and detours. One of the things that he did along the way was to change his name. No longer Anthony Dominick Benedetto, he became Tony Bennett.
To say that Tony Bennett is an icon in the field of music would be an enormous understatement. His one-time hero and mentor Frank Sinatra, once referred to him as “the best singer in the business”. It would be easy to fill dozens of these pages with Tony’s achievements, but as impressive as his accomplishments are Tony is much more than a musical genius. He is a profoundly passionate, loving, and committed human being who has touched countless lives through his love, generosity and philanthropy.
Tony has known since early childhood that he was a singer and that he was destined to share his love of music with the world. Not unlike many other creative artists, his road to success was pockmarked with adversity. He was not only undeterred by them, but he used the obstacles to strengthen his will and drive to success.
As a young grammar school student, Tony was in a class with a teacher who separated the children into two singing groups: the “golden birds” and the “black crows”. According to the teacher, the golden birds were the true singers and the black crows were pretty much hopeless failures who would never be able to carry a tune. When it came time to assign the kids to groups, she told Tony, “You are definitely a black crow.” Hurt and disappointed, but undeterred, Tony recovered from the insult and decided to prove his teacher wrong. “The crow comment, he said, “helped to shape my attitude about persevering and believing in myself, despite the naysayers.” And there were many naysayers along the way, among them members of his immediate and extended family who faulted Tony for “indulging” in his music after his father died, rather than going to work to bring in money to help out his mother who was “working her fingers to the bone” in the dress factory.
Tony’s family name, Benedetto literally means “the blessed one”, and he has lived his life in the experience of feeling that he is blessed, with a sense of gratitude, humility, and compassion that has generated deep respect and admiration from countless people throughout the world. Singing is the form that he uses to share his blessings with the world and for many people, listening to his music is a spiritual experience.
Committed to the intrinsic equality and dignity of all people, Tony has been a defender of human rights and racial equality his whole life. As a young soldier in Germany at the end of the Second World War, Tony was demoted, punished and transferred out of his unit after he had the audacity to violate the rules enforcing segregation and invited a childhood friend whom he had run into, who happened to be black, to his mess hall to share Thanksgiving dinner. He joined Martin Luther King in his march from Birmingham to Selma Alabama in 1965, and endured taunts, death threats, and intense hostility from the white bystanders.
He received the Martin Luther King “Salute to Greatness” award for his efforts to fight discrimination, as well as the UN Citizen of the World award.
Tony also (literally) puts his money where his mouth is. In 2001, he founded and funded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public performing arts high school in his hometown of Astoria, New York. The school holds one of the highest graduation rates of all of the New York City public high schools. In 2009, 97% of the senior class graduated and enrolled for college, despite the fact that over 70% of the students come from families that live below the poverty line. Recently, the class of 2013 completed 20,000 hours of community service. The schools graduates have gone on to study at some of the finest academic and art institutes of higher education in the country.
Tony is also a highly acclaimed artist whose work has been shown and exhibited in galleries throughout the world, including paintings on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art museum and the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park in New York. He paints under the name of Anthony Benedetto.
Tony’s most recent autobiography, Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett, (a previous autobiography is entitled The Good Life), features a number of “Bennettisms” that capture the essence of this amazing man’s views. They not only stand as the foundation of his philosophy of life, but also can serve as guideposts for anyone whose intention is to embody the values and qualities that are inherent in a life of commitment, creativity, and compassion for humanity. I’m including a few of them here, since we all can use a bit of inspiration and wisdom to help us along the way:
“I’m 86 and at the top of my game”
“My goal is to improve all the time”
“Do everything you do with love”
“Obstacles are necessary for success”
“All people are created equal and should be treated as such”
“You can’t plan life. Life plans you.”
“You can recover from even the bleakest moments in life if you believe you can and simply persist.”
“War is insanity”
“I believe that we should dedicate our lives to world peace and to putting down hatred.”
“Pour your heart into your work, your family, and your friendships and you’ll be rewarded a hundred-fold.”
“Truth and beauty are the essence of what it is all about for me.”
“When you give back, you get back.”
“This too shall pass.”
You may want to pick and choose from this list or add some your own guidelines. You might even want to commit to living them. But if you do, don’t expect that the process will be without its challenges. Like the man says, “Obstacles are necessary for success”. Dealing with them is, after all, how we get stronger at the broken places. And even the most formidable ordeals do eventually pass, as do the most pleasurable of life’s moments. And that is both the good news and the bad news.
If at 86 Tony feels that he is at the top of his game, what does that say about the possibilities for the rest of us? If we are all truly equal, than we all have an equal chance to make the very most that we can out of the life that we’re given. Tony also said that it’s not about “being the best” it’s about “doing your best”. If at the end of our lives we can honestly say that we’ve done that, then we’ve succeeded. We’ve lived and died at the top of our game, whatever our game has been. What’s yours?