NOTE: This blog appeared originally in October of 2009
By Bob Edwards
Radio became my lifelong pal in 1950 when I was three. Dad was at work, my brother was in school, and my mom was doing chores—so radio was my babysitter. In 1950, the radio airwaves were dominated by two enormously talented young men. Hank Williams was a hard-drinking, blues-loving poetic genius who would be dead the next year. Tony Bennett was an engaging, jazz-influenced interpreter of popular song (including one of Hank’s), at the dawn of a career still thriving in his 84th year. You don’t hear much of Hank’s rural twang and heart-breaking imagery. But Tony Bennett is still packing them in as a headliner—still winning Grammys—and much younger stars are begging to sing duets with him. That’s remarkable because Tony’s style of music was pronounced dead fifty years ago. But like radio, he endures.
The odds of Tony living this long were shorter than Hank’s. Tony grew up in the New York borough of Queens and was drafted as a teenager. In basic training, a redneck sergeant gave him grief for being a New York Italian, and Tony got plenty of KP and weapons-cleaning details. He was sent to Germany as an infantryman, one of the green replacement troops rushed into combat because of the many losses from the Battle of the Bulge. Since the army had skimped on their training, the replacement troops were falling faster than the men they replaced. Tony has said he had “a front-row seat in Hell.” He’s also said, “Anybody who thinks war is romantic hasn’t gone through one.” Pushing deeper into Germany, his unit was engaged in house-to-house combat in each Bavarian town along the way. Tony survived some close calls. He was also involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp where American POW’s had been held. One day he ran into Frank Smith, an African-American soldier he’d known from high school back in Queens. They had Thanksgiving dinner together at a hotel in Mannheim. The military was still segregated in 1945 and Corporal Anthony Benedetto was demoted in rank for the crime of having dinner with a black man. He was also reassigned to a unit that recovered bodies from the battlefield. An army major heard about it and had Tony reassigned to an entertainment unit—so he finished his service as a singer. Years later, Tony marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma, and he joined the group of entertainers who opposed apartheid in South Africa.
I think Tony Bennett left just a piece of his heart in San Francisco, for he surely left a piece in Mannheim, Germany, and maybe some in Selma, and quite a bit in Queens with those lucky kids attending the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.
The centerpiece of ETA is the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Tony’s old neighborhood in Queens, New York.
Click here for photos of the speeches and ribbon cutting ceremony. These pictures were taken by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images.
Click here to see photos from our tour of the school. Student body president Alex Lendor, a senior fine arts major, served as tour guide and our photographer for the day was Newrence Wills, a senior instrumental music major. He plays the tuba in the orchestra and wind ensemble, and the trombone in the school’s jazz band. He’s also got a pretty good eye for photography.