Feb 2, 2021

Tony Bennett Opens Up About Battling with Alzheimer's Disease & Confirms New Project with Lady Gaga


Tony Bennett Opens Up About Battling with Alzheimer's Disease & Confirms New Project with Lady Gaga

Tony Bennett, the 94-year-old jazz living legend opened his life to share his battling struggles with Alzheimer's disease, officially diagnosed back in 2016. Bennett and his family have decided to break their silence in an exclusive interview for AARP, the U.S. organization founded back in 1958 whose major goal is focusing on issues affecting those over the age of fifty.

Tony Bennett has Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of age-related dementia, which is characterized by a progressive memory loss that robs its sufferers of many of the gifts that we all take for granted — speech, understanding, treasured memories, recognition of loved ones — and leaves them utterly dependent on caregivers. 

Bennett, first diagnosed in 2016, has so far been spared the disorientation that can prompt patients to wander from home, as well as the episodes of terror, rage, or depression that can accompany Alzheimer's frightening detachment from reality; and, indeed, he might never develop these symptoms. But there was little doubt that the disease had progressed. Even his increasingly rare moments of clarity and awareness reveal the depths of his debility.

During the interview, he also talked about an upcoming project with Lady Gaga, scheduled for this upcoming Spring. The new Jazz album will feature songs recorded from 2018 to 2020.

Their first, electrifying duet ("The Lady Is a Tramp” in 2011) proved to be a life-changing moment for Gaga when the 20-something glam-rock/techno-pop star realized, under Tony's tutelage, that she was (like him) also a jazz singer — someone who can riff off a melody, easily improvising harmonic detours of stunning beauty. “The fact that Tony sees me as a natural-born jazz singer is still something that I haven't gotten over,” Gaga recently said.

In 2014 Lady Gaga and Tony recorded Cheek to Cheek, an album of standards that debuted at number one on Billboard's Top 200 pop and rock chart — the kind of intergenerational success that simply cannot be ignored. Soon, a follow-up was being discussed. The songs were recorded, in widely spaced sessions, between 2018 and early 2020. After a number of delays, owing to Gaga's burgeoning movie-stardom (in A Star Is Born) and solo-recording career (including the release of her recent LPs Joanne and Chromatica) — to say nothing of the COVID-19 pandemic — the collaboration is finally being prepared for release this spring.

Tony was already showing clear signs of the disease, when he and Gaga started recording the new LP at New York's Electric Lady Studios two years after his diagnosis. His wife Susan was not entirely sure that Tony was up to the task. “We'll try,” she recalled telling Danny, Tony's eldest son. “That's all I can tell you. We'll try."

Before his illness, Tony was known as a meticulous and hard-driving perfectionist in the studio. The 2012 documentary The Zen of Bennett (shot three years before the onset of any symptoms) includes an electrifying moment when Tony, working to calm a nervous Amy Winehouse during their duet on “Body and Soul,” snaps at producer Phil Ramone, who has dared to intervene on the studio mic: “No — stay out of it! Let she and I work it out.” In another sequence, he snaps at his music arranger-piano player, Lee Musiker, for using too fast a tempo on “The Way You Look Tonight,” which they are rehearsing for a duet with Faith Hill. “It can't be a throwaway,” Tony says. “I wanna do a definitive version of this song!"

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at Electric Lady Studios in 2019 / Photo: Kelsey Bennett

But Tony was a considerably more muted presence during the recording of the new album with Gaga. 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. Gaga, clearly aware of his condition, keeps her utterances short and simple (as is recommended by experts in the disease when talking to Alzheimer's patients). “You sound so good, Tony,” she tells him at one point. “Thanks,” is his one-word response. She says that she thinks “all the time” about their 2015 tour. Tony looks at her wordlessly. “Wasn't that fun every night?” she prompts him. “Yeah,” he says, uncertainly. The pain and sadness in Gaga's face are clear at such moments — but never more so than in an extraordinarily moving sequence in which Tony (a man she calls “an incredible mentor, and friend, and father figure") sings a solo passage of a love song. Gaga looks on, from behind her mic, her smile breaking into a quiver, her eyes brimming before she puts her hands over her face and sobs.

The new LP offers lush, gorgeous duets, with both singers in superb voice. But there is one duty, in connection with the record, that Tony is manifestly not able to perform: promotional interviews. (When I asked him, “Are you excited about the new record with Gaga?” he stared at me silently.)

This has left those in charge of Tony's life and career — chiefly Danny and Susan — in a quandary. Eager for as many ears as possible to hear and enjoy what may very well be the last Tony Bennett record, they 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, let alone making momentous decisions about whether to publicly disclose it.

His story of Alzheimer's is, like the rest of his long life, inspirational. That he has maintained such good quality of life is testament to the support he receives from his family, his medical team, and his friends — and lends credence to what Lady Gaga told Danny when he first informed her that they were thinking of breaking the silence around Tony's disease. “I wanted to check with her to make sure she was cool,” said Danny, “because she watches his back all the time. She was like, ‘Absolutely, it's just another gift that he can give to the world.’ “

This interview was published by John Colapinto, a longtime journalist contributor to The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Continue reading the full article on AARP's official site