When Tony Bennett’s family announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease last February, few fans of the 94-year-old singer imagined seeing him on stage again. But last summer, with the help of his family, he started rehearsing for two concerts at Radio City Music Hall, with his friend Lady Gaga. No one knew for sure if Tony would be able to make it, but his family believed Tony’s story could give hope to others struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. And invited Anderson Cooper and a 60 Minutes crew to follow him preparing for, what would likely be, his final act.
Tony Bennett has been singing hits and swinging jazz for seven decades.
But for Tony, now those years are just a dim memory, lost in the fog of dementia from Alzheimer’s disease. He spends much of his time in his New York apartment leafing through books and old photos.
We caught up with 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. (LAUGHS) And that?
Tony Bennett: It’s amazing. (TO LAUGH)
Anderson Cooper: Do you feel 95? You don’t look at it.
Susan Benedetto: How old are you, Tone?
Tony Bennett: 95. (LAUGHTER)
Tony has his good times, but Susan has to do most of the talking. She says he first worried about her memory six years ago.
Susan Benedetto: We came home one night, and he said, “Susan,” he said, “I’m having trouble 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, you want to go see a doctor about it?” And he said, “Yes.”
Anderson Cooper: Did you know right away 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– in Tony’s brain?
Dr. Gayatri Devi: No one really knows. But I do know that his hippocampus, which is the great central station for memories… and the conduit through which we retrieve and deposit memories isn’t working very well.
Susan and Tony have been together for over 30 years, she is now his full time carer.
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 say to him, “Tone, you’re going to be on 60 Minutes.” He’s like “Awesome”. I said, “Do you remember that show, 60 Min–” he’s, like, “I remember that.” But at any other time, he won’t know.
Anderson Cooper: I mean, he recognizes you.
Susan Benedetto: He recognizes me, thank God, his children, you know, we are blessed in many ways. He’s very nice. He doesn’t know he has it.
Anderson Cooper: He doesn’t know he has Alzheimer’s disease.
Susan Benedetto: Uh-uh [No].
What he knows is that he is at home, not on stage. He had continued to sing after his diagnosis, but the pandemic took him off the road. Susan says it was hard for him.
Susan Benedetto: It was Gayatri Devi, our doctor, who said, “If he wants to sing, let him sing, because that’s what’s best for him. You know, all the drugs and all the treatments they do to stimulate your brain, for it, there’s nothing more stimulating than performing.
Tony’s eldest son and manager, Danny Bennett, came up with the idea for the Radio City concerts in August with Lady Gaga. It aired on CBS this fall.
Danny Bennett: The pandemic was a big– (SIGHS) it was a big thing for me. Like, a– ending his career on– on this 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 was just released at the end of last year.
By June, however, her illness had progressed, and Susan told us she wasn’t sure what would happen at the planned concert in Radio City.
But when it was time to rehearse, something incredible 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 of his old songs were kind of still there. He sang an hour-long set from memory.
Anderson Cooper: You just started 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 phrases, 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 doesn’t know what day it might 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 involves 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 dance. There’s the visual system kicking in, 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 I saw 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 kept it simple.
Lady Gaga: Like, if I said, “Tony, would you like to sing ‘Love for Sale,'” he would say, “Yeah.” And if I say, “Tony, would you like to 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 (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 that I don’t get in the way of that.
By opening night in early August, all 6,000 seats at Radio City were sold out. It was Tony’s 95th birthday and his fans were waiting for him.
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: Alright.
Susan Benedetto: And then you will 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 towards the stage. Then the lights went out and the curtain rose.
Susan Benedetto: Well, once he saw the audience, and, you know, and he raises his hand, he’s – I knew we were okay because he became himself. It just turned on. You know, it was like a switch.
There may 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 it came time for Lady Gaga to join him for a few final duets, listen to what Tony said as she appeared on stage…
Lady Gaga: Hey, Tony!
Tony Bennett: Woah, Lady Gaga!…I like it!
Lady Gaga: This is the first time Tony has said my name in a long time.
Anderson Cooper: Really in all the weeks leading up to it, he hadn’t said your name… wow.
Lady Gaga: I had to stick together, 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 pull Tony Bennett off the stage one last time.
Lady Gaga: That’s the last thing I – said to Tony on stage was – “Mr. Bennett, it would be an honor for me if I could escort you off 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 spectacular… Everyone Mr. Tony Bennett!
Susan Benedetto: I really thought it was a triumph. It’s like… you know, climbing Mount Olympus, and he did it.
A few days after this triumph, we met Tony and Susan on their daily walk through 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 at Radio City. You have done a very good job.
Tony Bennett: Oh, thank you very much.
Tony had no memory of playing Radio City.
Anderson Cooper: Is it a sad story, Tony Bennett’s last performance?
Lady Gaga: No. It’s 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 hard is seeing how it affects him in some way, but seeing how it doesn’t affect his talent. I think he really pushed something to give the world the gift of knowing that things can change and you can still be gorgeous.
At 95, Tony Bennett continues to break records. His album with Lady Gaga, released last fall, is up for six Grammy awards, including album of the year. He is the oldest performer ever nominated in this category.
Produced by Nichole Marks. Associate Producer, David M. Levine. Broadcast Associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Robert Zimet.