If you had to sculpt a statue of Tony Bennett, the statue would look like all the Greek statues one can find in Greece or the Magna Graecia Museum in Reggio, Calabria. Just add on a suit and a broad smile. Make no mistake, Tony Bennett came from a Greko heritage, just like most people in Calabria and he had an X Factor that few entertainers had, just like most Greek or Calabrian entertainers.
In July, the world lost of the most talented artists in history, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, known to us by his stage name conversion in 1949. It may come as no surprise that Tony Bennett had Greko blood, as well as Calabrian and American/Queens culture fused together, resulting in such a talented and energetic being. His passing at the age of 96, will leave a big hole in the music world, having been involved with 107 albums all up, including compilations and live albums, he has charted gold or platinum in every decade since the 1950s, a feat only Elvis has attained. At the age of 95 he broke his own Guinness World Record as the oldest singer to release an album of new material! That energetic ability he had, I told you he was Greko, for the Greko are among the most energetic and talented people I’ve ever met anywhere on my travels.
Having visited his region many times, it’s easy to conclude that when his father and his maternal Calabrian grandparents left for New York, specifically Queens with its large Greek population, in the 1800s, they left a section in Calabria where Greko was still spoken. Certainly, his father’s village of Podargoni, meaning fleet footed, was a Greko village close to the Aspromonte region deep in Calabria. Sadly, his father passed away when Bennett was ten years old.
Aside from two recent chart-topping albums with Lady Gaga and an accumulation of 20 Grammy awards, Bennett was notorious for touring his angelic voice and of course appearing in movies. This includes the 1966 feature The Oscar where he met his second wife to the recent hit Analyze This.
The fleet footed Bennett marched with Dr Martin Luther King and Democrat John Lewis among others at Selma. African American civil rights meant as much to him as all those who attended the historic march. As a lifelong Democrat, he was scarred by the poor policies of Republican Hoover early in his life and the racial segregation he witnessed in the US military. In 1945, having successfully helped liberate a concentration camp and pushed back Nazi scum, he was demoted and banished to graveyard duties for dining with a black friend! Bennett always supported human rights causes and also causes that helped fellow artists. He never forgot his working-class roots. Something one can find in a true Greek! Perhaps he may have learned how the Greko in Calabria, who sometimes suffered from central Government policies, namely under Mussolini.
Greek Australian singer Felicia Harris told Neos Kosmos, “he was an amazingly kind man who courageously marched at Selma to support the civil rights movement and sang at the benefit concert for the people of Haiti after the devastating earthquake there, just to name two instances. He kept exploring his music, singing in many different songs of varying genres and collaborating with contemporary singers including Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. It is reported by his family that he was singing to the very end. Every singer would dearly hope to be able to do that. I love his duet album with Kd Lang. It’s called A Wonderful World. He helped make it so.”
Jimi Zach who runs the Groove Hub page on Facebook and a real music guru reminded me that he was also a painter. “He was an acclaimed painter specialising in water colours, he was also a very outspoken Democrat – born and raised in Queens (where my girl is from) perhaps Astoria but I’m not certain about the Astoria bit, Queens definitely, I’m sure I heard him interviewed about serving in WW2 also. Of course, he came back in vogue with the collaboration with Lady Gaga.”
Bennett once said of his military years, that it was hell on earth, that no one should have to go through war, whether its Ukraine or Sudan or Vietnam, war is no answer as he chose to be a pacifist.
Acclaimed singer and songwriter, Eleni Elefterias tells me, “he sang a lot of jazz like that legendary song I left my Heart in San Franscisco. He was a Calabrian migrant. When I was younger, I saw many Hollywood films, some of his songs were in the movies.”
Whether it’s an ouzo or Greek wine, let’s all have a toast to one of the great singers and entertainers of all time. An American, an Italian, a Calabrian, a GREKO and a humanitarian, we all should be proud of his achievements.
*Billy Cotsis is the director of Magna Graecia: Greko of Calabria which is playing at the Hellenic Club Canberra on Sunday 10 September, 3.30 pm. People are also encouraged to visit Greko towns in Calabria or Griko towns of Apulia.