It should give you pause that a man who, as an American soldier, took part in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II is not only still singing professionally, but at a high artistic level.
That man would be Anthony Dominick Benedetto, known to the world since 1949 as Tony Bennett. It was then that, having mustered out of the Army and done club gigs as “Joe Bari,” the Queens, New York, native ran into comedian Bob Hope, who suggested that he shorten and “Americanize” his name.
Bennett returns to Detroit on Friday to perform at the Fox Theatre. After several tours with Lady Gaga, he’s doing a series of dates on his own, in the weeks surrounding the Aug. 3 celebration of his 90th birthday.
Apart from his many hit records, going back to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on Columbia Records in 1950, and 19 Grammy Awards, Bennett has been named an National Endowment for the Arts jazz master, a Kennedy Center honoree and awarded Billboard Magazine’s Century Award.
Born in 1926, he grew up in a tight-knit Italian family. His father died when Bennett was 10, and his mother, a seamstress, had to support their three children. But she and his extended family were happy to encourage his singing and artistic aspirations. His first vocal inspiration might be a surprise.
“Louis Armstrong,” Bennett said, without hesitation, speaking by phone. “He was the king of jazz. Bing Crosby said Louis Armstrong invented and made jazz popular around the world. And he promoted Louis Armstrong as the best jazz musician who ever lived.”
Along with a love of singing and music fostered in his childhood, Bennett grew up painting, and continues that every day. Three of his paintings hang in the Smithsonian, including a portrait of Duke Ellington.
Lately he’s been painting more than singing, he admits with a laugh. “But it’s all good,” Bennett said. “I live right outside of Central Park, so I look out of my window and I see so many wonderful places that I could paint in Central Park. I paint a lot of watercolors there.”
Bennett has been interested in humanitarian issues for years, and with his wife, Susan, is a generous donor to many causes, many relating to education. In 2001, the couple funded a public high school in the Astoria, Queens section of his hometown that concentrates on the arts. Most donors would have branded it with their name, but Bennett and his wife named it the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.
“He was the greatest, what a friend,” Bennett said of the singer known as ol’ Blue Eyes. “He was so supportive to me. Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, they were 10 years older than I was, and they were my absolute idols. Along with Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne, they were so wonderful, I was inspired by all those artists to sing quality songs. I stayed away from the cheap songs that would be forgotten, and I just did the classics. They never get old. People love ‘em.”
Bennett’s own education was capped by a post-Army stint with singing instruction paid for by his veteran benefits.
“When I came out of the Second World War, under the GI Bill of Rights, I found a wonderful teacher at the American Theater Wing, Mimi Spear,” Bennett said. “She was right on 52nd Street in New York, the great jazz street where they had Dizzy Gillespie and so many wonderful artists performing. She was very inspiring to me.”
Among other things, Spear had Bennett listen to jazz instrumentalists, rather than singers, for ideas on phrasing.
As part of the festivities in his birthday month, Bennett will be honored in San Francisco for his immortal rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
There will be an unveiling Aug. 19 of an 8-foot-tall bronze statue of Bennett perched atop Nob Hill on the lawn of the Fairmont Hotel.
It was at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room that Bennett first sang the song, in December 1961 (it came out on record the following year). On Aug. 20, there will be a benefit concert featuring the singer to raise money for a Tony Bennett Fund for Emergency Pediatric Care at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
With the ability to pick up any standard and make it his own, Bennett has innumerable songs to draw on for his concerts. But he does take time to highlight his own hits.
“I do have one little section of the show where I talk about the songs I’ve introduced over the years, ‘Because of You,’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ ‘Rags to Riches,’ ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ — they all got more than a million in sales.”
“Cold, Cold Heart,” released in 1951, was also the fist pop hit gleaned from a Hank Williams song. Bennett liked the song, but thought it was “too country” for him. Columbia A&R director Mitch Miller made him do it, under threat of tying him to a tree. (Miller was right, Bennett now concedes.)
Bennett says he isn’t done collaborating with Lady Gaga, which resulted in the 2014 album “Cheek to Cheek.” “She and I will definitely do a second album,” he said. “The first one went well over a million and at the end of this year or maybe the beginning of next year, we’ll make another album.”
Bennett says he believes the secret to happy longevity is simple.
“I just love life, and I have a wonderful wife who is highly intelligent but is also a magnificent cook, loves me very much and makes sure that I eat very well. We exercise three times a week with a trainer. My doctor, when I visit him, says ‘Get outta here! There’s nothing wrong with you. Don’t bother me.’ ”
Having marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, Bennett has long been supportive of progressive causes and says he’s supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “I know that she’s going to be a magnificent president,” he said. “Things are going to get better and better once she gets in.”
Told that he sounds as optimistic as a red, white and blue political convention, Bennett laughs.
“I love being optimistic. I believe in life, and in what a gift it is to be alive.”
Susan Whitall is a Metro Detroit-based freelance writer.
8 p.m. Fri.
Tickets: $55, $65, $75 and $95. Go to Ticketmaster.com