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Monday, October 6, 2014

Anthony Benedetto

There's no title or date insofar as I could find for this Italian Village by                    
Anthony Benedetto, one of his most popular paintings.                  
Golden Gate Bridge,
Anthony Benedetto
There's an old saying, something about judging books by their covers. If you looked at the name of the title artist above an immediately drew in your mind some relatively unknown Italian Renaissance painter who maybe knew Leonardo da Vinci on a first-name basis (don't we all), or at least may have once passed him on a street in Florence and thus had a "nodding" acquaintance, then you'd best open this "book" (read on) and prepare for a surprise. Who's Anthony Benedetto? His painting of The Golden Gate Bridge (right) might offer a clue. In any case, though he's getting "up in years" (almost ninety) he is way too young and too American to have had any kind of acquaintance, nodding or otherwise, with Leonardo beyond admiring his work. And, although he is very Italian (as one might guess from the painting above) he's far from unknown, having been blessed by talents in two areas, music and painting. I'm tempted to say he's a better singer than painter, but that's a value judgment I'll leave up to you. Moreover, any preference for one talent over the other would probably have more to do with your age than his art or his music. At this point, I guess I should tell you that as a singer, he's better known for having left his heart in San Francisco--Tony Bennett.
Anthony Benedetto in his studio
--wonder what background music he plays while he paints?
Anthony Benedetto Self-portrait.
Normally I don't put much stock into artwork created by celebrities. A few weeks ago I highlighted the clowns of Red Skelton, and several months ago, the paintings of Winston Churchill and his much less adept friend, Dwight Eisenhower; but except for those, I can't think of any others upon whom I've expounded. There are, in fact, a surprising number of entertainers who have gotten paint beneath their nails. And, like artists in general, they range from fairly good to fairly bad. Tony Bennett is fairly good. By that I mean, even though he's painted a lot and developed his talent considerably in doing so, the man has his limitations. He does portraits of other entertainers surprising well (below). His landscapes are unexceptional, and he does still-lifes so seldom it's hard to judge. He can handle the human figure (bottom) adequately for an amateur, and has no small degree of talent in painting the urban landscape from the upper level hotel rooms where he often spends time between performances while on the road (below, right).
Louis Armstrong, ca. 1960s, Anthony Benedetto
New York on a Rainy Night,
Anthony Benedetto
Anthony Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926, the youngest of three children. His parents had come to New York from south central part of Italy during a period of mass migration from that country during the first decades of the 20th-century. His mother was an actress, his father a grocer who died with Tony was a boy of ten, but not before imparting to his son the Italian love of art and music. Tony was painting and singing from his teen years on to earn extra income for his impoverished family. Upon turning eighteen in 1944, Bennett was drafted into the army as an infantryman and shipped off to France, arriving just in time to help push the German Army back across the Rhine in the final months of the war. He encountered face-to-face, even hand-to-hand combat, narrowly escaping death on several occasions. After the war ended, he performed with a service band entertaining the troops occupying Germany, who, like himself, were eagerly awaiting discharge.
Ella Fitzgerald, ca. 1960, Anthony Benedetto
Lincoln Memorial, Anthony Benedetto
Once back home, Bennett studied singing under the GI Bill at the American Theatre Wing. Having grown up listening to the likes of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby as well as jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, and Joe Venuti, Bennett knew both pop and jazz intimately, though his first few efforts at making hit records were what could only be called "flops." He painted little or not at all. When you're trying to build a career in music, you put aside the much more difficult possibilities in art. The nightclub singer/actress, Pearl Baily recognized Bennett's vocal talents and in 1949 asked him to open for her at a Greenwich Village nightclub. Bob Hope was in the audience. He got Bennett a recording contract at Columbia with Mitch Miller, and access to top songwriters and musicians. His first big hit, Because of You, came with a rich orchestration by Percy Faith and gradually gained popularity on the jukeboxes of the time. By the early 1950s, working with Faith and Miller, Bennett regularly placed top songs on the Billboard Top 40.
Although I could find no title associated with this excellent autumn vista by
Benedetto, it appears to be New York's Central Park looking north.
Stevie Nicks, Anthony Benedetto
In 1956, and again in 1959, Bennett hosted a summer variety TV show standng in for Perry Como on NBC. With the advent of Rock and Roll, crooners like Bennett began having to look for work. He turned to Jazz and was again successful with several albums, while also having the distinction of appearing on the very first broadcase of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1962, about the same time he parked his heart in San Francisco. Although hee began painting sometime earlier, it was also about this time that he became a "serious" artist, his paintings (accompanied by his name, of course) bringing prices as high as $80,000. More recently, in working with on an album with Lady Gaga, he drew her portrait nude, in charcoal. The work was auction off for charity by Vanity Fair magazine in December 2011 for $30,000. Nice work if you can get it.
Lady Gaga, 2011, Anthony Benedetto

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