When Tony Bennett hears the opening notes of a familiar song, he still knows what to do.
Let someone start believing in you…
Steady on his feet, he takes his place alongside the piano.
Let him hold out his hand…
His smile grows wide; his gaze meets the eyes of those assembled around him.
Let him find you…
He knows the key, the tempo, the lyrics.
And watch what happens.
What happens next is nothing short of remarkable.
“His brain has pretty much built itself around his music”
As Anderson Cooper reportedmusic legend Tony Bennett is in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. On any given day, the 95-year-old may forget a lot about his past life. He likely won’t recall the stories behind the photos that fill his New York City apartment, not the ones with Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney, not even the one with Bob Hope — the man who gave Anthony Dominick Benedetto his new stage name: Tony Bennett.
But when Bennett hears that music, the soundtrack that has accompanied more than seven decades of American life, the singer that millions have come to know returns.
When Cooper and the 60 Minutes crew arrived at Bennett’s New York City apartment last summer, they witness the metamorphosis in real-time. Bennett was rehearsing for his final big performance: two sold-out nights at Radio City Music Hall last August. He would be performing with his friend and collaborator, Lady Gaga.
When it came to an interview, Bennett’s wife, Susan, had to do most of the talking. She is grateful, she told Cooper, that her husband still recognizes her and knows his children. He maintains a genial demeanor and a fondness for the memories he does have, especially those of his mother, Anna. But he has trouble holding a conversation and remembering where he is.
That is, until his accompanist, Lee Musiker, began playing a few notes of “Watch What Happens,” a song Bennett has been since 1965. He energetically singing walked out into the living room, gave a thumbs up to the cameras, and began singing.
“It was among the most extraordinary things I’d experienced on a shoot,” Cooper told 60 Minutes Overtime.
Bennett’s neurologist, Dr. Gayatri Devi, says the transformation goes beyond muscle memory. For Bennett, music was more than what he does; it is who he is.
“That’s true of many great people, that they have an over-abiding passion that guides them and everything else is secondary,” Devi told Cooper. “And for Tony, it’s always been music. And so, it’s no wonder that his brain has pretty much built itself around his music.”
Because Bennett has spent seven decades singing for an audience, his ability to perform and his musical memory has become hard wired in his brain, Devi explained. And music is itself a great stimulator for the brain. It engages multiple sections of the brain, from the visual system and auditory cortex to the part of the brain that deals with movement and dance.
Music also taps into the part of the brain that deals with emotion.
“We all remember emotional memories far more than we do other types of memories,” Devi said. “Memories that are imbued with emotion—they’re kind of pickled in it, as it were.”
“There is a way to touch the magic inside”
Bennett’s family hopes that, in telling his story, in sharing his final big performance with the world, they may give hope to other families whose loved ones are dealing with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“Tony Bennett is still himself when he’s on that stage and when he’s singing,” 60 Minutes’ Cooper said. “And for families who are going through it, it gives them some suggestions about how to communicate with that person, how to find the thing that will trigger something in that person that keeps that spark alive.”
One person helping Bennett to keep the spark alive is Lady Gaga. The pair released their first album together in 2014 and recorded a second in 2018. The latter was released in October 2021 and won two Grammy Awards this year.
As they rehearsed for their Radio City Music Hall performances last summer, two concerts that would celebrate Bennett’s 95th birthday, they were able to rekindle some of their old rapport.
“Tony and I, when we’re together, it’s like we’ve never stopped. And we pick up right where we left off,” Lady Gaga told Cooper.
Bennett’s family and neurologist agree that Lady Gaga is a terrific partner for the singer. She treats him gently, working deliberately to engage him. When the duo rehearses, rather than speaking to him, she often catches his eye, holds his gaze, and sings. At other times, she will gently touch his arm to guide him.
“Not everybody can figure out how to communicate with him, how to get him to respond,” Bennett’s wife, Susan, told Cooper. “And it’s not their fault. But she just has that gift. She’s very respectful.”
As she learned how to navigate a new way of communicating with Bennett, Lady Gaga likened it to playing jazz music. Each person may be improvising, playing their own notes at any given time, so to keep their individual performances in harmony, they must listen to each other.
It is a lesson she offers to other people who are learning how to communicate with a friend or family member who has dementia.
“I really want people to know that if a loved one of yours has Alzheimer’s, there is a way to communicate,” Lady Gaga said. “And there is a way to touch the magic inside of them that’s still there. I think it’s up to us to ask ourselves, what are the ways that we can push through what we’re feeling, so that we can best communicate with them , and receive their love? Because it’s still there.”
Back at Bennett’s Manhattan apartment, Musiker begins playing “This Is All I Ask.” Tony Bennett reads himself to sing the song, which he first recorded more than six decades ago.
When he stands alongside the piano, it seems he has a strong sense of exactly who he is.
Leave a bit of color for my heart to own…
“I consider myself an entertainer. My tool is singing. I like to just entertain people,” Bennett told 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley in a 1995 interview. “For me to make everybody forget their problems for an hour, it feels like a very noble job to me. You know, I try and make people feel good.”
stars in the sky,
Make my wish come true before the night has flown…
Bennett is the boy who made his mother feel good by singing to her when she came home from making dresses in New York City’s garment district.
He is the man who kept his singing style, no matter how much the music on the radio evolved and changed, who continued to sell millions of records and attract new generations of fans.
And he is the man who, at 95, performed to a sold-out crowd at Radio City Music Hall before walking off the stage for what may well be the final time.
And let the music play as long as there’s a song to sing
And I will stay younger than spring.
The video above was originally published on October 3, 2021 and produced by Brit McCandless Farmer and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.