Butler Institute Director, Fans Reflect on Bennett’s Legacy

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Tony Bennett famously sang about leaving his heart in San Francisco. But he also had a place in his heart for the local museum where he frequently exhibited his paintings.

Lou Zona, director of The Butler Institute of American Art, reflected on his relationship with Bennett, whose career as a singer spanned generations. Diagnosed with Alzheiemer’s disease in 2016, Bennett died Friday at age 96.

The Butler hosted the first exhibition of Bennett’s paintings in 1994 and would exhibit his works several times over the decades that followed. There was always a special thing between The Butler and Tony,” Zona said.

Bennett, who was born Anthony Benedetto and signed his paintings Bennett/Benedetto, donated one of the pieces from that initial show to the museum’s permanent collection. The work, “Homage to Hockney,” hangs in a second-floor gallery.

“I know he will always be thought of as a celebrity artist. But the fact of the matter is he was very serious about his art,” Zona said. “He studied it and worked and became a very, very nice painter.”

Tony Bennett, right, visits with Lou Zona, director of The Butler Institute of American Art. (Photo courtesy of The Butler Institute.)

He recalled that Bennett was “very proud” to have had his first show at The Butler, and would brag about the Youngstown museum at other exhibitions of his work and at concerts. Once, Bennett requested that Zona accompany him to a couple of exhibitions in Florida to offer remarks.

Zona and Bennett developed a “very special friendship” over the years. Bennett would call Zona whenever he was performing in the region and reached out to him after the death of Zona’s brother.

“Over the years I got to spend a lot of time with him, and every time I was impressed, not only with his abilities as a singer but as a really great man,” he said. “This is a fellow who marched with Martin Luther King. He was a proud American.”

On another occasion, Bennett invited Zona to the recording studio when he collaborated with singer K.D. Lang.

“They’re in there recording one of the songs on an album, and he looked back and smiled,” Zona recalled.

Bennett was one of the first performers when what was then the Youngstown Convocation Center – now the Covelli Centre – opened in 2005. Bennett performed Oct. 30, the day after the opening concert by 3 Doors Down. He later performed at Packard Music Hall in 2019.

“He was fabulous,” Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti recalled. Rimedio-Righetti, who was a member of City Council at the time, said she purchased at least a row of tickets to the sold-out 2005 concert, which attracted patrons young and old from beyond the Mahoning Valley.

His talent was “unreal” then and, more recently, when he performed during a televised concert with Lady Gaga.

“He still had a beautiful voice,” she remarked.

James McClellan, who lives in Wisconsin and occasionally performs here with Easy Street Productions, noted that MTV picked Bennett up, giving him “a new shine” and bringing him to the attention of musicians from that generation.

“He lasted so long, and that meant he was able to influence generations,” he said.

McClellan also lamented the continuing loss of people in touch with the material of the Great American Songbook.

“I hope that there always will be people who are in touch with it. But Tony Bennett stood for it,” he said.

Amanda Beagle, teacher and owner at Amanda Beagle Voice Studio in Howland, described Bennett as “one of the most beloved voices in American music.” As a performer, she has “found a home in the Great American Songbook” and connected to her roots through Italian-American music icons.

“Tony Bennett has always been a positive inspiration to me, with his broad appeal and ability to remain relevant as music styles have changed through the years,” Beagle said. “His collaboration with contemporary stars like Lady Gaga brought a whole new audience to American standards and proved that anyone can reinvent themselves no matter their age.” 

Pictured at top: Lou Zona, director of The Butler Institute of American Art, stands next to a painting donated to the museum by Tony Bennett.

Lou Zona February 2022 Commentary About Tony Bennett

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