Following his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the legendary performer is using his award-winning voice to fight stigma
An esteemed musical collaborator and big band singer, Tony Bennett is no stranger to ensembles. When he confided in his wife, Susan Benedetto, that he couldn’t remember the names of his bandmates, she assumed age was simply catching up to him. As a physically fit 89-year-old who performed timeless ballads perfectly, Bennett was an exception to the notions of aging and decline. However, the trouble with his memory concerned Bennett, especially since it might impact his ability to put on his signature fine-tuned show.
The couple sought answers. To their surprise, Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2017. “In hindsight, I can go back and identify things that were probably warning signs,” Benedetto says. “He would question what an iPad was or pull keys out of his pocket and ask what they were. All along, I thought he was just being a jokester or something.”
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After receiving the diagnosis, Bennett insisted on continuing to perform. “Tony has always had a very positive attitude,” Benedetto says. “When he found out about the disease, he immediately said he wanted to keep singing. He was going to keep going straight ahead as he always has.”
Put on a happy face
As one of only a few artists to produce chart-topping records every decade since the 1950s — totaling more than 60 albums — Bennett is an American icon. His hits “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Rags to Riches” and “I Wanna Be Around,” among many others, have earned him 19 Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. After forming a friendship with popstar Lady Gaga in 2011, Bennett’s music reached new generations of fans.
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Despite his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Bennett’s desire to help others connect through music remained steadfast. He continued crooning for sold-out audiences around the world and recording new hit songs. Bennett’s legendary talent and charm were as abundant as ever.
“He was raised with the type of entertainers, like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, who felt it was a very honorable profession to make people feel good for the 90 minutes or so they were performing,” Benedetto says. “Tony was never one to advertise his problems because he felt it was his job to help people forget theirs.”
Without a song
The COVID-19 pandemic brought Bennett’s late-career victory lap to a halt. He continued rehearsing every night at their home in New York City, but Benedetto admits “not having that stimulation of performing and being around the public was detrimental for him.”
In February 2021, Bennett publicly shared that he was living with Alzheimer’s in an interview with AARP The Magazine. Shortly after the news was announced, Bennett, a charismatic optimist, tweeted “Life is a gift — even with Alzheimer’s.” The response from the entertainment industry and public was emphatically and overwhelmingly supportive.
“People will come up to him now and thank him for being so open and showing people that there is still life after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” Benedetto says. “I think he’s such a great example of someone who is living well with the disease. He gives people hope.”
What good does it do
In August, Bennett and Lady Gaga teamed up for two sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in celebration of Bennett’s 95th birthday. The duo didn’t stop there — in October, Bennett and Lady Gaga released what is billed as Bennett’s final studio album, “Love for Sale.” A tribute to composer Cole Porter, the collection of standards is the second album Bennett has recorded with Lady Gaga. Upon its release, Bennett earned the Guinness World Records title for the oldest artist to release an album of new material.
As the disease progresses, music has a renewed importance in Bennett’s life. “It’s absolutely something that we still share and love and can connect through,” Benedetto says. “We listen to albums together all the time at home. Occasionally, a song will remind him of a story from earlier in his life, which is amazing. The way singing and dancing continue to capture him — he can’t help but gravitate toward it.”
As it has for over seven decades, Bennett’s voice — brave and baritone — is helping people find joy amidst life’s hardships.
“Sharing a diagnosis on such a public platform takes courage and compassion,” says Harry Johns, Alzheimer’s Association CEO. “It is through sharing our stories that we are able to break through the stigma related to this disease. Tony is leading the way.”
The Best Is Yet to Come
One Last Time: An Evening With Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett
A prime-time special filmed during their Radio City Music Hall concerts.
8 p.m. ET on CBS; streaming on Paramount+
MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
Airing on MTV and streaming
The Lady and The Legend
A documentary chronicling the decadelong friendship between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.
Streaming on Paramount+