New York City Remembers Tony Bennett

Native Son of Astoria and Legendary Singer Dead at 96

By Matthew Fischetti

Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco but his soul belonged to Astoria.
The 96-year-old legendary crooner known for his ballads, jazz and pop tracks passed away on July 21 after battling Alzheimers. While his tracks broke billboard records, the singer started from humble stock. Bennett came from a working class Italian immigrant family, the son of a butcher and seamstress in Queens.
People who knew Bennett over the years said that he never forgot those roots.
Many may remember Bennett for his many accolades and illustrious decades long career, but Kevin Breslin said that he was defined by the little things and not the big ones.
Kevin Breslin’s first memory of Bennett was when he was around six-years-old, sitting on the kitchen counter watching his father, legendary New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin, turn up the transistor radio and slow dancing to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” with his wife Rosemary Dattolico.“I thought that was kind of charming and it always stuck in my head, of a husband and wife – but Tony Bennett was a part of it.”
It was his Mother’s favorite song. Years later, as Dattolico was battling cancer at Lenox Hill Hospital, Bennett called her to sing her favorite song shortly before she passed away.
“The dancing in the kitchen was always spectacular. And then calling her at this hospital – the little things become the big things,” said Breslin.
Former City Council president and fellow Astoria native Peter Vallone Senior warmly remembered Bennett in an interview.
Vallone knew Bennett from the neighborhood. While Vallone was eight years younger than Bennett, he said that his cousin Joseph Petralia, was particularly close with the late singer due to their shared interest in music.
Vallone continued to say that his father, who was president of the civic association at the time, even got Tony Bennet his first singing performance at 14 years old, after listening to his renditions.
Out of the things Vallone remembers Bennett for, one of the biggest was his role in helping get the Frank Sinatra School in Astoria built.
Vallone helped secure funds in order to build the school at 35-12 35th Ave. which Bennett was a large supporter of and helped raise millions of dollars for the arts high school.
Vallone emphasized Bennett’s humility as he refused to let the school be named after him, despite Vallone’s insistence.
“The school probably wouldn’t exist without you, so we’re going to name it the Tony Bennett school,” Vallone recalled saying.
“No! I won’t do it,” Bennett said back. “You have to name it the Frank Sinatra school.”
“Tony, there would be no school without you. I love Frank Sinatra too. He’s a very nice guy. But he has nothing to do with this school.
“I’m not going to allow that,” Bennett said. “He was my mentor, I love the guy and want to do this.”
“Look at the humility of Tony Bennett,” Valone emphasized in the interview.
Maria Cuomo Cole, the daughter of former Governor Mario Cuomo (who had a close relationship with Bennett), remembers Bennett as someone who was a close and supportive friend and mentor to her family.
“Tony Bennett was a hero, friend and mentor to our whole family, and had a very deep, meaningful friendship with my father. And my mother, who was is 91 and loves him very, very much and was a very close friend of our parents,”
Cuomo Cole emphasized the long standing relationship between her family and Bennett, whether it was being a supporter of her brother and former Governor Andrew Cuomo or his interview.
Cuomo Cole also noted that an important part of Bennett’s legacy was how his career spanned generations, with his highly regarded duets with contemporary artists.
“With the love and support of his children, and Danny [Bennett’s son, who managed his father] celebrating his talent with contemporary talent, the years of his duets with contemporary artists and serving as a mentor for them – that process helped to make him a more contemporary figure,” said Cuomo Cole.
“I was really struck by that. I really think his children celebrated his life in the most important way, the most meaningful way and keeping him healthy to keep him highly relevant. He brought so much to our culture for three generations.”
When reminiscing on Bennett’s legacy, Kevin Breslin deferred to a quote his father used to always say.
“I’ll never forget the quote from my father: ‘singers win hands down.’ And Tony Bennett won hands down.”

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