The human brain may be the most astonishing byproduct of the great miracle of creation. It has enabled the specie to unpack secrets of the galaxy, travel to the moon and back, write War and Peace, paint the Mona Lisa and compose the Ninth Symphony. But, human life is finite, and the brain often fades before the rest of the organism lets go.
In 2001, at age 74, Tony Bennett released the first of a series of duet albums. It was called Playin’ with my Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues. The following year he teamed up with k.d. lang for A Wonderful World, the first of six duet albums with fellow artists collaborating on songs from the American songbook. Duets: An American Classic (2006), Duets II (2011), Cheek to Cheek with Lady Gaga (2014), Tony Bennett Celebrates 90 (2016), and Love for Sale, the second album with Lady Gaga (2021). Cheek to Cheek debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Love for Sale, released on September 30, 2021 came in at #8. Here’s the astonishing part.
In 2016, Tony’s wife Susan announced his Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses. Scientists have long known that music is an effective therapy for Alzheimer’s patients. It can increase pleasure and slow the deterioration of memory loss, but that generally applies to those on the receiving end rather than the performing one. Nevertheless, Tony continued to perform…flawlessly, including two sold out Radio City Music Hall concerts with Lady Gaga in August of this year.
His neurologist, Dr. Gayatri Devi, explains that although he doesn’t remember facts or even performances (a week after the Radio City concerts, he had no memory of them) the music brain engages multiple other parts of the brain that include musical memory and performance.
I own all the duet albums but am especially fond of the Lady Gaga collaborations. Their first collaboration was a hip upbeat version of The Lady is a Tramp on the Duets II album in 2011, and it’s still my favorite. For years I regarded her as a pop music curiosity. I thought she was more interested in making outrageous entrances than making music. I continued to see Gaga, whose real name is Stephani Germanotta, as a fringe figure until her film debut opposite Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born. In the film she revealed herself both as a sensational singer (La Vie en Rose and I’ll Always Remember Us This Way) and songwriter (9 songwriting credits, including Oscar winner Shallow).
After A Star is Born, I began paying closer attention to her musical talent—and her remarkable affection for Mr. Bennett. These Bennett/Gaga partnership albums are not sentimental, end of life curiosities. We always knew he had exceptional phrasing, but the albums show Gaga’s great jazz and swing chops as well as the way she energizes and brings out the best in him.
With the Cheek to Cheek and Love for Sale albums, we see (videos) and hear masterful, original arrangements of these American songbook standards by two musical giants. The songs are old, but the arrangements and chemistry are fresh and exciting. Nothing sad or melancholy here.
You might remember that, following a similar diagnosis, Glen Campbell made a farewell tour with his children, reprising his old hits, including a documentary and farewell album. It was touching, but the whole thing had a sadly sentimental feel. Tony Bennett’s final act is as classy as his first #1 hit Because of You (1951) and his most iconic chart topper, I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1962).
Japan designates its best artists as “national treasures. The closest we come is a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. Tony received that award in 2005. I can’t do justice to the what he and Lady Gaga achieved in their duets, but the whole of their collaboration is greater than the sum of its parts. And, the skill, love, friendship, and empathy Lady Gaga shows is astonishing.
The CBS show 60 Minutes dedicated a segment to Tony’s “Final Act” just three weeks ago (October 3, 2021). If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the 13 minutes it takes – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tony-bennett-lady-gaga-alzheimers-disease-60-minutes-2021-10-03/
As if the music weren’t enough, we also remember Tony was a well-respected painter. This is a sketch he did of Lady Gaga during one of their recording sessions, and the picture above the title of this blog is a view of Central Park from Tony and Susan’s apartment on Central Park South. He’s still with us but we need to honor his national treasure status while he is.
Photographs courtesy of CBS News. Painting from the online collection at BenedettoArts.com