Paying Tribute To Queens’-Own Music Icon, Tony Bennett

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Tony Bennett with his artwork, Courtesy of Benedetto.

The heavens are more harmonious, and each evening, stars will convey additional luster in memory of the iconic Tony Bennett (1926 – 2023), synonymous with his unforgettable career as a traditional pop and jazz singer and a diverse painter. He was the last of the old-time generation interpretative American crooners. 

Upon learning that Bennett passed away on July 21 at his Central Park South home, New Yorkers among countless worldwide fans felt it was the end of an era, but his memorable voice as a crooner, spirit of a diverse artist, and a humanitarian will live on. His 97th birthday would have been on August 3, and now plans are underway to declare the date, “Tony Bennett Day.”

Tony Bennett in Astoria decades ago.

Bennett was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, 20 Grammy Awards, two Primetime Emmy Awards, and achieved a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and sold over 50 million records internationally. At the age of 95 and 60 days, he was deemed the oldest person to release an album of new material, breaking the Guinness World Record. One of his most notable achievements entailed introducing numerous songs into the Great American Songbook, which are recognized as pop music standards that continue to bond the generations. Through his paintings, he explored worldwide themes, often working in watercolor and oil. Some works can be found at the Smithsonian, and there is one at the U.N., where he commemorated its 50th anniversary. 

Bennett, born as Anthony Dominick Benedetto, was raised in a rowhouse at 23-14 32nd Street and in a five-story Colonial building known as The Acropolis at 21-15 33rd Street in Astoria. His father, Giovanni, an Italian immigrant, was a grocer, whereas his mother, Anna, was a seamstress. Bennett had older siblings, John and Mary. His family sought to achieve the American Dream, but faced the Great Depression and the passing of his father in 1936. At P.S. 141, now Steinway I.S. 141 at 37-11 21st Avenue, Bennett was praised as the class caricaturist. At age 10, he performed at the Triborough Bridge’s opening.

Tony Bennett’s childhood home, 23-14 32nd Street circa 1940, Courtesy of NYC Dept of Records.

Bennett graduated from Manhattan’s High School of Industrial Art (Class of 1945), where he cultivated his early passions in singing and painting. He supported his family and career by performing in Astoria at Riccardo’s, The Red Door, Venice Gardens, Shangri-La, and Pheasant Tavern. As of 1944, he served in the 63rd Infantry Division and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany. He would later march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, supporting civil rights. 

There is no shortage of stages and hearts that Bennett graced citywide. The 1962 Forest Hills Music Festival featured the first appearance of Tony Bennett at Forest Hills Stadium on July 28, which was advertised as a repeat of his memorable Carnegie Hall performance. A ticket ranged from $2.50 to $4.85 at the Festival office, and Stan Rubin and His Tigertown Five opened the concert. In Rego Park, Bennett was an attraction at the star-studded restaurant and entertainment venue, The Boulevard, at 94-05 Queens Boulevard.

History repeats itself, sometimes by name. “Today is ‘Tony Bennett Day’ in the Borough of Queens, with the singing star at the glory end of a testimonial dinner at Fleur de Lis, Ridgewood, where Joey Bishop and others will pay tribute,” read a July 25, 1962 New York Post ad.

Stages also included Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Apollo Theater, and Colden Center at Queens College. As a Class of 2000 vocal major at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts, this columnist attended Bennett’s May 1998 concert after Frank Sinatra passed away, met him backstage, and acquired an autograph. Students witnessed his soulful vocals, charm, and distinctive style first-hand.

Tony Bennett at 1962 Forest Hills Music Festival.

In October 1964, critic Leonard Harris of the New York World-Telegram wrote, “‘Soul music’ is shared by a few jazz musicians; ‘heart music’ belongs only to Tony Bennett. The Astoria belter, who opened a two-week engagement at the Copacabana last night, claims to have left his heart in San Francisco; that’s hard to believe when he so clearly has it with him out there on the Copa floor.” He then explained that for every number, there “seems to have a little bit of Bennett riding with it. Add to this a real sense of musicianship and a warm, secure voice, and you have Tony Bennett. It’s no accident he’s one of Columbia Records’ few adult performers to resist the massive inroads of the rock ‘n’ rollers.”    

Tony Bennett was a best friend of “Ol’ Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998). In a 1965 edition of LIFE magazine, Sinatra said, “For my money, Tony Bennett’s the best in the business.” In 2015, on the occasion of what would have been Sinatra’s 100th birthday, Bennett honored him and reminisced the founding of a premier high school for young artists in Astoria in 2001. He told CBS News, “Because he was such a great friend, we decided, my wife and I decided to call it The Sinatra School. He was wonderful to me. And he stayed that way his whole career.” 

“Tony had a presence in this world that had us all thinking he’d be with us forever, and we were right. He may not be physically with us, but in our hearts, he’s with us forever,” said Frank Sinatra School of the Arts alumnus Andrew J. Koehler. He feels that listening to his record would convey a feeling of Bennett being in front of one’s eyes, singing to that person. “When he was physically with you, he didn’t have to say a word. The whole room would be a-buzz with excitement over his presence. Describing his personality, he was a proud man. You could tell that Tony was overjoyed to be witnessing his legacy through the students of FSSA in real-time.” 

In fall 2014, Koehler earned a spot in the vocal music department under Mr. Thomas Sandri and Ms. Heidi Best. “Around the school, Tony was something of legend. I didn’t know if I would ever see him, let alone meet him.” On three occasions, he performed for Bennett. At his 90th Birthday Gala, the opera class performed “Because of You.” Two years later, the musical theatre class performed at the Exploring the Arts Gala, where he was in the audience. 

“Neither time had I met him, just yet. Come the opening night of my senior year musical, ‘Ragtime,’ he surprised us by attending. During intermission, Ms. Best brought him backstage to greet us. I didn’t know at the moment, but my meeting him had been captured. He had this smile, greeting all of us, that can never be forgotten. He looked at all of us and said, ‘Voices….my God!’” 

Koehler envisions a multitude of ways to memorialize Bennett. “Whenever Tony attended a show at FSSA, he sat in the same seat. I would love to have the seat retired, so it remains his seat. I’d also love to see his childhood home become a museum and I want to be a part of organizing a memorial performance at FSSA. Tony paved the way for thousands of artists, all while being a legend in the music industry, and that should be acknowledged in more ways than one.” 

Tony Bennett, Courtesy of Chip Deffaa.

When Koehler’s grandma gifted him Tony Bennett CDs prior to high school, he tuned in as if it was his job, and then his passion took off. He explained, “Tony kept me inspired all of these years, not only because of his spectacular voice, but dedication to fostering the next generation of artists and dedication toward being a multi-faceted, multi-talented artist. It is partially because of his influence that I want to go on to help nurture and foster further generations of artists and never want to stop learning how to be a multi-faceted artist.”

Steve Abraham of Forest Hills loved Bennett’s music and his favorite song is “Rags To Riches.” “I can hear that song all day and not get tired,” he said. He recalled his encounter in the 1980s. “Tony Bennett was recording at Kaufman Astoria Studios during a tour. He was very friendly and he just talked about how he liked recording in his hometown.”

Abraham suggested that the school be renamed “The Frank Sinatra-Tony Bennett School of the Arts.” He also visualizes a permanent exhibit at Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Fred Hadley, who was raised in the Woodside Houses and now resides in Boca Raton, Florida, recognizes Bennett’s “trademark butterscotch baritone” as the best in the business. “It would absolutely be fitting to name a park after him. Since he was from Astoria, why not co-name Astoria Boulevard ‘Tony Bennett Boulevard?’ It flows nicely off the tongue like the dulcet tones of the greatest crooner.”    

Tony Bennett’s autograph to Corey Marcus, Courtesy of Vicki Marcus-Haas.

CD producer, playwright, and past New York Post music critic, Chip Deffaa, will remember Bennett as being totally genuine and also as a man of tremendous warmth off stage. “He had that big heart and once told me he loved singing, painting, and people. I saved the Christmas cards he sent; he painted the images seen on his cards himself.”

Bennett topped the charts in the early 1950s with hits such as “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches.” Deffaa reminisced, “He recorded his signature song, ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ in 1962. The first time I heard it, I was a kid at Camp Bernie in Hackettstown, NJ, and it was playing on the radio in the mess hall. I just thought it was the greatest new song I’d heard in years. He also scored with ‘The Good Life’ and other songs in that era.”

He also reminisced, “Whether he recorded with a lush orchestra like Percy Faith’s, the ever-swinging Count Basie Band (two albums), or the Ralph Sharon Trio, he sang with tremendous integrity. He picked songs he believed in and delivered in his own straight-ahead jazz/pop style.”

Deffaa admired his musical integrity and befriended the late pianist, John Bunch, when John was Bennett’s music director. “John thought it was one of the greatest gigs you could ever have, since Tony’s taste in music was impeccable, and he was just like a fellow musician. Tony and the trio worked as one,” he said.   

He also values Bennett’s artistic control of his career. “Tony didn’t care if he was playing a small jazz club, a college theater, or a huge concert hall, so long as he could sing the songs he wanted.

He wasn’t interested in being an actor. He got offers to play characters in movies, but tried it and didn’t care for it. He saw himself as strictly a singer.”

Bennett always managed to remain active and young, despite developing Alzheimer’s. “In later years, Tony was happy to record with much younger artists like Lady Gaga and Elvis Costello, as long as they met on his musical terms, singing the songs he believed in. The results were terrific.” 

William A. Padron of Jackson Heights can still recall what it felt like to see Bennett at MSG Felt Forum in 1983, and in the mid-1990s at Tower Records, and said, “What an amazing and magnificent entertainer all around!” Chaya Sara of Forest Hills saw his performance at Lincoln Center around 10 years ago. “It was superb and very memorable, and his interpretation of the lyrics was masterful,” she said. 

Vicki Marcus-Haas, who was raised in Flushing, shared vivid memories, such as how on Bennett’s 95th birthday called for his performance at Radio City with Lady Gaga in a special titled “One Last Time.” “I watched with tears in my eyes at how he had Alzheimer’s, but Alzheimer’s did not have him.” A favorite memory is his photo with her father, as well as a photo with her brother Corey 50 years later, when a mutual friend arranged a meeting in an Astoria restaurant. “He recreated the picture with a note that said ‘Here’s to nice moments’ – A gift Tony gave to us.” 

Tony Bennett & Vicki Marcus-Haas’ father Joey Marcus in Miami, early 1950s.

She admires Bennett all around. “His artwork was beautiful. He sat in Central Park and sketched. He always appeared to be humbled by every performance and aware of every performer he worked with and why. My favorite artwork is the Christmas Card collection he made for the American Cancer Society. He seemed to never miss an opportunity to be a giving human being.”

She feels that his love for New York should be memorialized in all places he loved. “Central Park should have the area where he sat and sketched, along with some of the benches named after him, and Astoria should have a mural of his work and a street named after him.”   

Tony Bennett & Vicki’s brother, Corey Marcus in Queens, early 2000s.

Rego Park resident Gloria Nash graduated from Bennett’s alma mater. She feels that Bennett’s Astoria home merits landmarking, along with a statue of him being erected in front. He explained, “He’s been active in music as long as I’ve been alive, and I will be 70 in a few months. He had longevity and his recordings have timeless staying power, since his voice is so natural and soothing. He had an effortless way of putting his own brand on any song and he had an instantly recognizable voice, no matter where you live or how old you are.” 

Nash relates to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” since the composer, George Cory, wrote it about two writers who just moved to NYC, but missed their hometown. “My parents divorced when I was a baby, with my father moving to San Francisco, and my mom staying in NYC,” she said. Her other favorite songs are “The Good Life,” “I Wanna Be Around,” and “The Best is Yet to Come.” 

“I grew up on the American Songbook, and can truly say we will be indebted to the ‘old crooners’ for keeping that music alive,” said Rose Chin-Wolner of Forest Hills Gardens. She remembers momentous moments, such as in 2010 when she attended an Andrea Bocelli concert in Central Park. “Among his many surprise guests were Celine Dion, principal singers of the Metropolitan Opera, and none other than Tony Bennett, who sang ‘New York, New York’ with Mr. Bocelli.” She also recalls his lecture and exhibition at the MET. “One of his favorites was one he did of Duke Ellington.” A performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center was in celebration of Bennett’s 85th birthday. She said, “In 2011, his youngest daughter, Antonia, a songstress, joined him on stage for a few songs.” Now it is up to the younger generations to carry the torch.  

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