When Tony Bennett released “Cheek to Cheek,” his recent duet album with Lady Gaga, it was a hit. At 88, Bennett became the oldest artist to top the Billboard chart. Who’d he steal that honor from? Himself, at 85, for “Duets II” (with assists from John Mayer, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson, among others).
Such accomplishments speak to the singer’s staying power and his contribution to American culture. Bennett is one of the world’s most popular performers, and he’s kept the American songbook alive for decades. “Jazz is so special,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I’ve always wanted to let young people know about it.”
That same devotion to melding old and new also makes Bennett a hero for Italian Americans.
In 1906, Bennett’s father emigrated from Italy to Manhattan. His parents didn’t make much money — Bennett’s father worked as a grocer; his mother earned pennies as a sweatshop seamstress. But Bennett didn’t let his poverty slow him down. Like Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra before him, Bennett launched his career as a performing waiter. He was discovered by Bob Hope in 1949 and signed by Columbia Records soon after. He’s been making music ever since.
Bennett’s longevity and ability to reinvigorate his brand speak directly to the work ethic the Italian American community is known for. Last year, at one of his concerts, I was struck by how vibrant and strong he seemed, even in his 80s. I was also moved by the way he’s incorporated his family into his line of work — his son is his manager, and he often brings his daughter onstage to perform.
Sure, Bennett’s rags-to-riches story is quintessentially American. But his humility, hard work and devotion to his family? Those are what make him an Italian American worthy of our respect.