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.