Before he was Tony Bennett, the stage name for a man who has defined generations of American music and culture, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was just a kid who loved to sing while growing up in a blue-collar Queens household during the Great Depression.
While his parents couldn’t afford his singing lessons at the time, Bennett, HON ’01, knew the best was yet to come.
The 20-time Grammy Award winning icon, best known for his jazz and pop tracks such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” that have serenaded us from jukeboxes, records, cassettes, CDs and iTunes for decades, died Friday at the age of 96. Bennett had strong ties to GW, a connection that spanned more than two decades. Notably, he introduced the nation to the award-winning GW Presents American Jazz broadcast by Richard Golden, facilitating its creation and serving as the opening announcer each week.
The project began in 2000, when Bennett introduced his longtime friend, radio personality Richard Golden, to current SMPA Professorial Lecturer Michael Freedman to explore collaboration on a radio project to honor Duke Ellington’s legacy. GW already was a community partner to the Duke Ellington School of Arts in Georgetown.
Bennett advocated for national broadcasting on XM satellite radio after hearing the new program aired locally in D.C. and it received a weekly platform in October 2002. Each hour began with the opening line: "Hello, this is Tony Bennett and from the George Washington University, welcome to American Jazz with Dick Golden."
“Tony Bennett loved his association with the university,” said Golden, radio host of GW Presents American Jazz and former special assistant of broadcasting operations and events. “For me, it was a very fulfilling role to help nurture and cultivate Tony Bennett's relationship with George Washington University and to create a radio platform that spotlighted the university's association with the legacy of Duke Ellington, jazz and the American Songbook."
Bennett was a special guest of GW Presents American Jazz, and he frequented informal Sunday post-broadcast brunches to mingle with GW students and community members, which was a great thrill for all. He was also an occasional guest lecturer in Freedman’s classes.
In May 2001, GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg presented Bennett with a Doctor of Music honorary degree from the university.
Even as he achieved worldwide stardom, Bennett never forgot his roots and sought ways to help others. In 2015, the George Washington University awarded him and his wife, Susan Benedetto, the university’s President’s Medal for championing the encouragement of arts in education because of its ability to bring people of different backgrounds and experiences together through the human experience.
Bennett and Benedetto founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts and started a nonprofit organization called Exploring the Arts, Inc., which supports arts education in public schools in New York City and Los Angeles.
“I just think that the more artists there are in America, the more hopeful it would be for the United States in the long run,” Bennett said while receiving the President’s Medal, the highest honor the university president can bestow, during a ceremony at GW’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.
With a list of accolades so large it rivals novels in length, Bennett made clear at the 2015 ceremony that he was humbled and grateful to receive such distinguished recognition from GW.
“I could never dream of anything this beautiful happening to me,” Bennett said. “After years of work and wondering where it is all going to end up, this is a great experience in my life.”
“The legendary Tony Bennett leaves a remarkable legacy, not only through his hit music but also his devoted support of the arts and education,” GW President Ellen M. Granberg said. “He was an outstanding recipient of the GW President’s Medal and honorary degree. Our university is fortunate to have been one of many beneficiaries of his time and talent.”
In 2014, Bennett recorded the Grammy-winning album “Cheek to Cheek” with Lady Gaga, the daughter of GW Business graduate Cynthia Germanotta, M.A. ’78. The duo, who performed at the Kennedy Center together in summer 2015, also recorded the 2021 album “Love for Sale.” It, too, received a Grammy.
Lady Gaga was in attendance at the Corcoran School when Bennett and Benedetto received their President’s Medals in 2015.
Bennett sold 50 million records, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. His began his career in the late 1940s after serving the United States Army during World War II, where he was stationed in Germany at the end of the war and aided the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp in Landsberg.
With the help of the G.I. Bill, Bennett attended the American Theatre Wing in Manhattan and studied Bel Canto singing. He was also an accomplished artist and painter whose work is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection. His 2015 President’s Medal ceremony at GW featured a private one-night-only exhibition of his renowned art, including a bust of Harry Belafonte and paintings of Ellington and of Central Park.