A legend amongst legends. His appeal crossed generations for over 70 years as he sang with everyone from Celine Dion to Amy Winehouse to Lady Gaga. Reading his obituary is like a time capsule of the past 97 years. I knew he served in World War II but had no idea that he was on the front line of troops to liberate the German concentration camps. And I had no idea the story behind how he decided on his stage name:
At night he performed at amateur shows and worked as a singing waiter. He had just begun to get paying work as a singer, using the stage name Joe Bari, when he was drafted.
He arrived in Europe toward the end of World War II, serving in Germany in the infantry. He spent time on the front lines, an experience he described as “a front-row seat in hell,” and was among the troops who arrived to liberate the prisoners at the Landsberg concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau.
After Germany surrendered, Mr. Bennett was part of the occupying forces, assigned to special services, where he ended up as a singer with Army bands and for a time was featured in a ragtag version of the musical “On the Town” — directed by Arthur Penn, who would go on to direct “Bonnie and Clyde” and other notable movies — in the opera house in Wiesbaden.
He returned to New York in August 1946 and set about beginning a career as a musician. On the G.I. Bill, he took classes at the American Theater Wing, which he later said helped teach him how to tell a story in song. He sang in nightclubs in Manhattan and Queens.
A series of breaks followed. He appeared on the radio show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” the “American Idol” of its day. (The competition was won by Rosemary Clooney.) There are different versions of the biggest break in Mr. Bennett’s early career, but as he told it in “The Good Life,” he had been singing occasionally at a club in Greenwich Village where the owner had offered Pearl Bailey a gig as the headliner; she agreed, but only on the condition that Joe Bari stayed on the bill.
When Bob Hope came down to take in Ms. Bailey’s act, he liked Joe Bari so much that he asked him to open for him at the Paramount Theater. Hope had a condition, however: He didn’t like the name Joe Bari, and insisted it be changed. Dismissing the name Anthony Benedetto as too long to fit on a marquee, Hope christened the young singer Tony Bennett.NY Times
Here are two snippets of an interview he did with Howard Stern back in 2011. The first one talks more about his time serving in World War II and how that experience impacted him. The second talked about his own trouble with drugs, how Frank Sinatra gave him a warning, and how he wished he did the same to Amy Winehouse.