Long before he became a world-famous crooner, Tony Bennett honed his talents singing in restaurants and nightclubs in his Astoria neighborhood where he grew up in a two-story house on 32nd Street near Ditmars Boulevard during the Great Depression.
After Tony Bennett’s family revealed that the legendary singer has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, we took a deep dive into the icon’s Queens roots.
Born on Aug. 3, 1926, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was raised by his Italian immigrant father, who labored as a grocer, and his mother, who worked as a seamstress. He began to display his talents at an early age, performing at age 10 at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in 1936.
Influenced by his uncle, a vaudeville tap dancer, the young performer enrolled at the High School of Industrial Art in Manhattan. Soon after his father Giovanni died in 1936, Bennett dropped out of high school to help support his family by singing at Italian restaurants such as the recently shuttered Riccardo’s by the Bridge.
“I always felt that if I never made it as a performer, I would still be happy as a singing waiter,” Bennett posted on Twitter after learning of Riccardo’s closing. “I’m very sorry to hear of its closing after nearly 70 years.”
Bennett’s career went on hold with the approach of World War II when he was drafted into the Army in 1944. He served in the 63rd Infantry Division, which was sent to France and Germany. Bennett was involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp in Kaufering/Landsberg, Germany. At the end of the war, he sang with the Army military band under the stage name “Joe Bari” until his discharge in 1946.
Returning home, Bennett brought his talent to Astoria hotspots such as the Shangri-La on Ditmars Boulevard and The Red Door on Steinway Street.
One night in 1949, Pearl Bailey heard him sing and invited him to open for her in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope was in the audience and visited with him after the show.
“Bob Hope came down to check out my act,” Bennett said. “He liked my singing so much he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’ First, he told me he didn’t care for my stage name and asked me what my real name was. I told him, ‘My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto,’ he said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.”
He went on to sell more than 50 million records, with numerous platinum and gold albums to his name. Along the way, Bennett garnered 13 Grammy nominations and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and is one of the select few artists to have new albums at the top of the charts in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. But for all of his success and fame, Bennett never left Astoria behind, returning to his favorite restaurants and seeing old friends like the recently deceased World War II veteran Luke Gasparre.
In 1999, Bennett and his wife Susan Benedetto, a public school teacher, were inspired to start a school for the performing arts. In 2001, the school opened in temporary quarters for 250 students. The school was named Frank Sinatra School of the Performing Arts, a tribute to the memory of Tony’s best friend and colleague.
In 2009, the school moved into its brand-new $78 million home on 31st Avenue and 36th Street across from the Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Museum of the Moving Image.
“I want this to be the best arts school, not only in the United States, but in the world,” Bennett said at the opening. “We’re going to make these students real artists who know what they’re doing.”
When asked why the school was named for Sinatra and not himself, Bennett laughed.
“The fact that in LIFE magazine he called me his favorite singer, I’ve never gotten over that,” Bennett said during the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. “So that’s where it’s at. That’s why this school is named the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve traveled all over the word — Paris, Rome and Palm Springs — but my favorite place is Astoria.”
This story first appeared on our sister publication qns.com.