It remains one of the most impressive reversals I’ve ever seen of a musician pulling off live–and at the age of 88, no less.
In 2015, during the third of four sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga were sharing a bill, promoting their chart-topping and generational 2014 duet album, “Cheek to Cheek.” They had light, brisk chemistry on the songs they sang together, but the best parts of the night were their solo sets, each inviting their respective fan bases — goofy Bennett traditionalists and Gaga’s spirited but spiritually loyal little monsters — to each other’s realm.
For most of the concert, they played with a full band and orchestra, but for one number during his own set, Bennett called up a single guitarist to join him in a warm radius of a spotlight. He told us the song was dedicated to his “best friend, Frank Sinatra,” and began with Velvet’s rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” holding the mic to his side instead of to his lips. After a few lines, he placed the microphone over the piano and sang the rest without any amplification at all. The whole place hung in quiet, and Bennett’s voice was so strong and clear that you could hear every crystal note, every lyric uttered, even in the cheap seats.
He was charming, and so was Tony Bennett: the understated elegance, the inescapable name, and most of all, the ease with which he suddenly transformed from an opera singer into an exceptionally talented player who could sound like an opera singer.
In August 2021, while battling Alzheimer’s disease, Bennett, who died on Friday at the age of 96, made his last public appearance on the same stage, again with Lady Gaga. Once again show strength and resilience, this time simply by performing at all. poignant clip “60 minutes” He captured Bennett’s struggles at rehearsals but his ultimate triumph when he took the stage. On tours, Gaga said, “He called me ‘baby. ‘ But I wasn’t sure he knew who I was.” It experienced an amazing transformation, though, any time the band took the opening notes for another song and Bennett started singing.
“When the music starts, something happens to him,” she said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
It was the final act of an unexpected collaboration that changed the course of every musician’s career. When Gaga first linked up with Bennett on the song “Cheek to Cheek,” some skeptics saw it as nothing more than a clever distraction, a way for the wild pop provocateur to rebrand as a jazz singer in the wake of her first major failure, the overrated (if, in hindsight, somewhat understated) 2013 album “Artpop.” But the enthusiasm, respect, and musical intelligence she brought to her work with Bennett undoubtedly won her fans and the respect of an older generation of listeners. When I was recording outside Radio City that night in 2015, I couldn’t keep track of how many people I heard loudly, “I had no idea Lady Gaga could actually sing! “
Bennett was no stranger to cleverly timed reinventions. He broke into MTV when he was in his late 60s, recording the album “Unplugged,” which featured collaborations with Elvis Costello and KD Lang, and eventually won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. He sang with more eclectic, and in some cases, even younger musicians on his “Duets” series of albums, from 2006 to 2012. He found a kindred spirit in Amy Winehouse, but their relationship was short-lived. Their stellar rendition of “Body and Soul” by “Duets II” was the last thing I ever recorded. It was released as a single posthumously, on Winehouse’s 28th birthday.
Gaga satiated Bennett’s desire to remain active and engage with a younger generation of musicians, and her professional stability made her the duo’s most committed partner. But Gaga also said that Bennett’s mentorship “saved” her life. The example of the then octogenarian allowed her to think beyond the successes or failures of the present moment, and assess the longevity of a musical career. “I was so sad. I couldn’t sleep. I felt like dying,” Gaga said of the time before Cheek to Cheek. “After that I spent a lot of time with Tony. He only wanted my friendship and my voice.”
It’s not that their voices or energies always blended particularly well — Gaga brought a tense play to their collaboration, while Bennett’s voice sounded more relaxed and resourceful as it aged — but the mutual admiration they shared was real enough to open the minds of their fans and generations. With 2021’s Grammy-winning album of Cole Porter covers, “Love for Sale,” Bennett seemed to be passing the baton to Gaga, opining that she could continue his lifelong mission of keeping the Great American Songbook alive. And Gaga, in turn, was asking the little monsters to do their homework and appreciate the rich history of American folk music.
One of the last and most bitter moments of mutual respect came during the Radio City 2021 programme, which was immortalized forever in ’60 Minutes’. section that was making the rounds on social media on Friday. After weeks of calling her “sweetheart,” the name finally came back to him when they were — where else? – on the stage. “Stop!” cried Bennett, apparent delight for his duo partner. “lady gaga!”