Tony Bennett Duets with Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse & Other Musicians, Passing on the Great American Songbook

I was pos­sessed with a won­der­ful exam­ple of my Ital­ian Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. They would come over and join us every Sun­day, all my aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces, and I would sing for them. I was 10 years old, and I was just say­ing, “Who am I? What am I sup­posed to do?” And they told me that they love the way I sang. It cre­at­ed a pas­sion in my life that exists to this moment as I speak to you, that is stronger now at 89 than in my whole life. I still feel that I can get bet­ter some­how. And I search for it all of the time. —Tony Ben­nett, Week­end Edi­tion inter­view, Octo­ber 10, 2015

Tony Ben­nett “is not just an artist for the ages, but an artist for all ages,” the Library of Con­gress wrote in its announce­ment of the icon­ic singer as the 2017 Gersh­win Prize Win­ner. Bennett’s life and career have tru­ly been extra­or­di­nary. The gold­en-voiced croon­er from Queens “has been on the front lines of his­to­ry” as a World War II vet­er­an who “fought in the Bat­tle of the Bulge and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the lib­er­a­tion of a con­cen­tra­tion camp.” He “marched with Mar­tin Luther King in Sel­ma to sup­port civ­il rights,” then went on to win 19 Gram­mys, sell 10 mil­lion records, per­form “for 11 U.S. pres­i­dents,” and become a pro­lif­ic visu­al artist who “con­tin­ues to paint every day, even as he tours inter­na­tion­al­ly.”

When he received the Gersh­win hon­or, Ben­nett had already been diag­nosed with Alzhiemers dis­ease, a diag­no­sis just revealed to the pub­lic by Bennett’s wife, Susan Benedet­to. He had been show­ing signs all the way back in 2014 when he released Cheek to Cheek, an album of jazz stan­dards record­ed with Lady Gaga. When AARP’s John Colap­in­to vis­it­ed him at his New York City apart­ment recent­ly, “there was lit­tle doubt that the dis­ease had pro­gressed.”

But Bennett’s gold­en voice and insa­tiable desire to get bet­ter remain. He still paints every day and rehears­es twice a week, and even as his symp­toms wors­ened over the past few years, he per­formed and record­ed with younger artists, deter­mined to pass on the tra­di­tion of the “Great Amer­i­can Song­book” in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Bennett’s advo­ca­cy for jazz singing through his duets with singers like Lady Gaga and Amy Wine­house may turn out to be his most endur­ing lega­cy. 2011’s Duets II began the col­lab­o­ra­tions with Lady Gaga. Dur­ing the record­ing of Cheek to Cheek, Ben­net enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly told NPR that “It’s the first time that young peo­ple that love [her] so much will fall in love with George Gersh­win, with Cole Porter, with Irv­ing Berlin.” She added, “Tony’s real­ly open­ing up a whole new gen­er­a­tion.” The two then got togeth­er again four years lat­er, going into the stu­dio between 2018 and 2020. “Tony was a con­sid­er­ably more mut­ed pres­ence dur­ing the record­ing of the new album,” writes Colap­in­to. “In raw doc­u­men­tary footage of the ses­sions, he speaks rarely, and when he does his words are halt­ing; at times he seems lost and bewil­dered.” It may “very well be the last Tony Ben­nett record.”

This sense of final­i­ty is why Benedet­to and their son Dan­ny “have joint­ly decid­ed to break the silence around his con­di­tion, a deci­sion they have, nec­es­sar­i­ly, had to make with­out Tony’s input, since he is, Susan said, inca­pable of under­stand­ing the dis­ease.” Nonethe­less, the new album of duets, due out this spring, promis­es to show Ben­nett in the fine form he has main­tained through­out the pro­gres­sion of his dis­ease, exer­cis­ing his voice to keep the worst symp­toms at bay. “He is doing so many things, at 94, that many peo­ple with­out demen­tia can­not do,” says Bennett’s neu­rol­o­gist Gay­a­tri Devi. “He real­ly is the sym­bol of hope for some­one with a cog­ni­tive dis­or­der.” Benedet­to is open about what’s been lost. “There’s a lot about him that I miss,” she says. “Because he’s not the old Tony any­more. … But when he sings, he’s the old Tony.”

See Ben­nett in clas­sic duets with Amy Wine­house and Lady Gaga above, includ­ing the stun­ning live ver­sion of “Any­thing Goes” with Gaga, just above, from 2014. “I feel very val­i­dat­ed by this,” she said that year. “You know, he’s giv­en my fans a gift by say­ing to them that he likes the way I sing jazz.” See those fans look on with rapt atten­tion, absorb­ing the songs Ben­nett loved so much through a new gen­er­a­tion of singers inspired by his incred­i­ble lega­cy. Just below, see sev­er­al more career-cap­ping duets from Duets II, and even more at the YouTube playlist here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Music Can Awak­en Patients with Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

Demen­tia Patients Find Some Eter­nal Youth in the Sounds of AC/DC

Christo­pher Walken Reads Lady Gaga

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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