When Tony Bennett’s family announced he had Alzheimer’s disease in February, few fans of the 94-year-old singer imagined they would ever see him on stage again. But this summer, with the help of his family, the legendary crooner began rehearsing for two concerts at Radio City Music Hall, with his friend Lady Gaga. No one was sure if Tony would be able to pull through, but his family believed Tony’s story could give hope to others struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. And invited us to follow him to prepare what would probably be his last act.
Tony Bennett has been singing hits and swinging jazz for seven decades.
But for Tony now those years are just a vague memory, lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s dementia. He spends much of his time in his New York apartment leafing through books and old photos.
We met Tony and his wife Susan in June, a few weeks before his 95th birthday.
Anderson Cooper: Is that Bob Hope?
Tony Bennett: Bob and Dolores.
Susan Benedetto: They sent this for your 75th birthday. And in a month and a half, you’ll be 95 years old. (LAUGH) And that?
Tony Bennett: It’s amazing. (TO LAUGH)
Anderson Cooper: Are you feeling 95? You don’t look like it.
Susan Benedetto: How old are you, Tone?
Tony Bennett: 95. (LAUGH)
Tony has his good times, but Susan has to talk the most. She says he first cared about her memory five years ago.
Susan Benedetto: We got home one evening and he said, âSusan,â he said, âI have a hard time remembering the names of the musicians. And–
Anderson Cooper: The musicians he played with?
Susan Benedetto: Yeah, on s– who he works with all the time. And so it was unusual. And I said, “Well, do you want to go see a doctor about this?” And he said, “I do.”
Anderson Cooper: Did you know straight away that it was Alzheimer’s disease?
Dr Gayatri Devi: Yes.
Dr Gayatri Devi is Tony’s neurologist. She diagnosed it in 2017.
Anderson Cooper: Do you know what’s going on in Tony’s brain?
Dr Gayatri Devi: Nobody really knows. But I know his seahorse, which is the great central station of memories, and the conduit through which we collect memories as well as memories, is not working very well.
Susan and Tony have been together for over 30 years, she is now his full time caregiver.
Anderson Cooper: How well does Tony understand what’s going on around him at any given time?
Susan Benedetto: Every day is different. Tony late at night, sometimes early in the morning, he’s more alert, if I can use that word. So I’ll tell him, “Tone, you’re gonna be on 60 Minutes.” He’s like “Awesome”. I said, “You remember that show, 60 Min–” it’s, like, “Yeah.” But at any other time, he won’t know.
Anderson Cooper: I mean, he recognizes you.
Susan Benedetto: He recognizes me, thank goodness his children you know we’re blessed in so many ways. He is very gentle. He doesn’t know he has it.
Anderson Cooper: He doesn’t know he has Alzheimer’s disease.
Susan Benedetto: Oh-uh [No].
What he knows is that he is at home, that he does not perform on stage. He had continued to sing after his diagnosis, but the pandemic took him off the road. Susan says it’s been hard for him.
Susan Benedetto: It was Gayatri Devi, our doctor, who said, âIf he wants to sing, let him sing, because that’s the best thing for him. You know, all the drugs and all the treatments that they do to stimulate your brain, for it, there is nothing more stimulating than to perform.
Tony’s eldest son and manager, Danny Bennett, came up with the idea for Radio City concerts in August with Lady Gaga. It will air on CBS later this fall.
Danny Bennett: The pandemic was a big– (SIGH) it was a big thing for me. Like, a– end his career on– on that note–
Anderson Cooper: It couldn’t end like this.
Danny Bennett: It couldn’t end like this. After all he had … he did.
Tony and Lady Gaga released their first album together in 2014.
In 2018, he was able to record another album with her, which just released last week.
By June, however, her illness had progressed and Susan told us that she was not sure what exactly would happen at the scheduled concert in Radio City.
But upon rehearsal, something incredible has happened. Tony’s accompanist, Lee Musiker, started playing, and suddenly the legendary showman was back.
He had no notes, no cue cards.
We were amazed, all his old songs were still there. He sang an hour-long set from memory.
Anderson Cooper: You just start playing something and it’s all there?
Lee Musiker: When I start playing Tony is completely engaged, and it’s a whole new performance and new lines, new nuances. Nothing less than a miracle.
Dr Gayatri Devi explained how such a transformation was possible.
Dr Gayatri Devi: People react differently depending on their strengths. In Tony’s case, it’s his musical memory, his ability to be a performer. They are an innate, hard-wired part of his brain. So, even if he does not know what the day will be or where his apartment is, he can still sing the entire repertoire of the American songbook and move people.
Anderson Cooper: How does music stimulate the brain?
Dr Gayatri Devi: It engages several different parts of the brain, doesn’t it? So there is the auditory cortex to hear. There is the part of the brain that deals with movement and dancing. There’s the visual system that engages so it’s kind of like a whole brain activator.
Tony could remember the songs, but could he remember how to perform them in front of thousands of people? Lady Gaga knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Lady Gaga: And you know, Anderson, for the first two weeks that I’ve seen Tony since COVID, he called me ‘Honey’. But I wasn’t sure he knew who I was.
During rehearsals in July, she found new ways to connect and communicate with her old friend – when she asked him questions, she would keep it simple.
Lady Gaga: For example, if I were to say, âTony, would you sing ‘Love for Sale’â he would say âYeahâ. And if I say “Tony, would you sing ‘Love for Sale’ or ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing'”, he might not have such an easy answer.
Lady Gaga: When that music comes up (SNAP), it’s … something happens to it. He knows exactly what he’s doing. And what’s important to me, actually, is just making sure I’m not embarrassed.
On opening night in early August, Radio City’s 6,000 seats were full. It was Tony’s 95th birthday and his fans were waiting for it.
Lady Gaga opened the show. Backstage, Susan did her best to remind Tony of what was going on.
Susan Benedetto: We’re going to watch Lady Gaga’s set.
Tony Bennett: Right.
Susan Benedetto: And then you’re going to sing. OKAY?
Tony Bennett: How many songs do I sing?
Susan Benedetto: I’ll tell you what you’re going to sing.
When it was time, they walked together to the stage. Then the lights went out and the curtain went up.
Susan Benedetto: Well, once he saw the audience, and, you know, and he puts his hands up, he’s … I knew we were okay because he became himself. It just lighted up. You know, it was like a switch.
There might have been a few missteps, but the crowd didn’t care – it was Tony’s night and the old crooner was in charge.
He sang over a dozen songs and received at least 20 standing ovations.
When the time came for Lady Gaga to join him for some final duets, listen to what Tony said as she appeared on stageâ¦
Lady Gaga: Hey, Tony!
Tony Bennett: Woah, Lady Gaga! … I like that!
Lady Gaga: It’s the first time Tony has said my name in a long time.
Anderson Cooper: Really for all the weeks before he hadn’t said your nameâ¦ wow.
Lady Gaga: I had to stay the course, because we had a sold-out show, and I have a job to do. But I’ll tell you, when I walked out on stage and he said, “It’s Lady Gaga,” my friend saw me. And it was very special.
And at the end of the night, Lady Gaga was there to take Tony Bennett off stage one last time.
Lady Gaga: That’s the last thing I said to Tony on stage: “Mr. Bennett, it would be my honor if I could escort you off the stage.” And he said, “Okay.” And I did. And, just being the woman who got him off the stage is enough for me.
Lady Gaga: You were so amazing.
Tony Bennett: The audience loved it.
Lady Gaga: They did, you were, you were spectacularâ¦ Everyone Mr. Tony Bennett!
Susan Benedetto: I thought it was really a triumph. It’s like … you know, climbing Mount Olympus, and he did.
A few days after this triumph, we met Tony and Susan on their daily walk in Central Park.
Anderson Cooper: What did you think of the concert the other night?
Tony Bennett: I don’t know what you mean.
Anderson Cooper: I saw you in Radio City. You did a very good job.
Tony Bennett: Oh, thank you very much.
Tony had no recollection of playing Radio City.
Anderson Cooper: Is it a sad story, the last performance of Tony Bennett?
Lady Gaga: No. It is not a sad story. It’s emotional. It’s hard to see someone change. I think what’s been beautiful about it, and what’s been difficult, is seeing how it affects him in some ways, but seeing how it doesn’t affect his talent. I think he’s really pushed something to give the world the gift of knowing that things can change and you can still be beautiful.
Produced by Nichole Marks. Associate producer, David M. Levine. Broadcast Associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Robert Zimet.