After keeping it secret for years, Tony Bennett finally made a startling revelation about his health. And the news devastated his fans. Speaking alongside his wife, Susan Crow, the music legend opened up about the diagnosis and how it had completely changed their lives.
Remarkably, Bennett and his wife have managed to keep their struggle secret since 2016. That’s likely to be in down to the veteran singer’s ability to put on an incredible performance, regardless of his health. And despite being 94 years-old in 2021, he was nevertheless preparing to release a second album with pop queen Lady Gaga.
Gaga first realized her talent for jazz vocals when the duo sang “The Lady Is a Tramp” together, on Bennett’s collaborative album, Duets II in 2011. As he told AARP magazine, the pop star couldn’t believe that jazz royalty like Bennett recognized her flair for the music. “The fact that Tony sees me as a natural-born jazz singer is still something that I haven’t gotten over,” Gaga said.
The pair went on to record Cheek to Cheek in 2014, a whole album of classic jazz standards that hit number one on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 pop and rock chart. The surprising, yet undisputed success of this collaboration between two very different stars, led to another joint album. Owing to Gaga’s multiple projects and Bennett’s growing health concerns though, the release got pushed back until the spring of 2021.
The fact that Bennett is still recording in his nineties, in spite of his recent diagnosis, is remarkable. But then, this is one remarkable performer we’re talking about. To date, the iconic singer has collected 19 Grammy Awards, won a Lifetime Achievement prize, and sold over 50 million records globally. Bennett was even described as “the best singer in the business” by Frank Sinatra. High praise, indeed.
Yet another remarkable thing about the star, is that he made his way to the top from humble beginnings. Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926, he came from a poor family of Italian-American immigrants living in Queens, New York. Tragically, his green-grocer father passed away from heart disease when Bennett was only 10. His mother, Anna, was left struggling to support him and his two older siblings, John and Mary, on a seamstress’ wage.
A gifted painter as well as singer, Bennett won a place at the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan. But he gave it up at 16 to find work and bring home money for the family. His love of jazz and classic show tunes developed after hearing big names like Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland on the radio.
With the seeds of his musical career already sown, Bennett began performing in local restaurants as a singing waiter. His impressive vocals already gaining attention, he landed a job singing at a nightclub in New Jersey. But when he turned 18 in 1944, Bennett was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to fight in World War II on the front line in Europe.
Bennett experienced the full horrors of war during those traumatic few months. The singer would later describe it as being like a “front-row seat in hell” in his 1998 book The Good Life: The Autobiography Of Tony Bennett. But he kept up his spirits with singing in military bands, using the stage name Joe Bari.
After being discharged from the army, Bennett decided to enrol in formal singing training. At the American Theatre Wing School, he studied the bel canto [Italian for “beautiful singing”] techniques used in opera. Then a few years later in 1949, his burgeoning talent was spotted by Broadway star Pearl Bailey. She invited him to perform with her in New York’s Greenwich Village, which would turn out to be his big break.
Bailey had invited the legendary singer and comedian Bob Hope to the show that night. Recalling what happened that night on the star’s official website, Bennett said, “Bob Hope came down to check out my act. He liked my singing so much that after the show he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’”
The star continued, “But first he told me he didn’t care for my stage name — Joe Bari — and asked me what my real name was. I told him, ‘My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto,’ and he said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.’ And that’s how it happened. A new Americanized name — the start of a wonderful career and a glorious adventure that has continued for over 60 years.”
The next step on that “glorious adventure” was signing with Columbia Records. This was followed by a huge number one hit with the ballad, “Because of You” in 1951. Later that year, Bennett’s rendition of Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart” also reached the premier spot in the music charts.
The following year, in 1952, the rising star married his art-student girlfriend Patricia Beech. A jazz music fan, Beech met the singer at one of his Cleveland shows a year earlier. Their wedding caused a huge stir — prompting thousands of female fans to don black and gather outside the New York venue, in feigned mourning.
Those fans must have been equally heartbroken when the couple went on to have two sons together — D’Andrea, or “Danny” in 1954 and Daegal, or “Dae” in 1955. Meanwhile, Bennett kept racking up the hits, with his big-band smash “Rags to Riches” once again reaching the top of the charts. Show-tune success also followed after the singer recorded a rendition of “Stranger in Paradise” from the Broadway musical, Kismet.
All in all, the renowned jazz artist has had a staggering 24 Top 40 hits. His 1962 release of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was the big-hitter though. As well as garnering two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, this golden — literally — record made it to the 23rd spot on the American music industry’s list of the most important Songs of the 20th Century.
But Bennett’s golden era couldn’t last forever. The mid-1960s saw what has become known as the “British Invasion,” and Beatlemania take hold. With it, a surge in the popularity of rock ’n’ roll music and mop-top haircuts. Suddenly, the jazz crooner wasn’t so cool anymore. The pressure was on to change both his musical and fashion styling.
Persuaded by his label to try some modern pop songs, Bennett recorded Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! But he hated it so much that it made him sick. Literally. “I actually regurgitated when I made that awful album — I got physically sick,” the singer recalled in the 2007 book Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art and Music, by Robert Sullivan.
With that, Bennett bid adieu to Columbia Records. He told Robert Sullivan, “If I really adore a song, I just get into the creative zone and try to get the definitive version of the song that would make the composer feel magnificent. Where he would say, ‘That’s what I was trying to convey.’ And Columbia wouldn’t let me do that anymore.”
A failed attempt at starting his own record label, Improv, followed. Even though it birthed some songs and albums that would go on to be much loved — such as 1975’s The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album — the label didn’t have the distribution powers. It collapsed in 1977, leaving Bennett’s career flailing. His second marriage to actress Sandra Grant — with whom he had two daughters, Joanna and Antonia — was also in trouble.
Career and personal life both in crisis — Bennett and Sandra Grant officially separated in 1979 — the singer was on a downward spiral. He was wrestling with drug addiction and facing the loss of his Los Angeles home due to tax bill. After a near-overdose almost took his life, Bennett reached out to his sons, Danny and Dae. “I’m lost,” he told them, according to AARP magazine.
The brothers knew what to do. Having both worked as touring rock musicians for several years, they had knowledge of the recording industry. While Danny had fine-tuned his business acumen, Dae was skilled with production. There and then, Danny became his father’s manager. They figured out a way to repay his debt, brought him back to New York and set about re-launching his music career.
Danny Bennett realized that he needed to get his dad away from the cheesy image he had developed doing shows in Vegas. They needed to target a younger audience. So Danny persuaded SCTV, a Canadian comedy show popular with the college crowd, to feature the singer. He also got him a part in The Simpsons and a slot on The Late Show with David Letterman. Suddenly, younger people were starting to pay attention.
In the yuppie era of the 1980s, Tony Bennett, with his sharp suit and smart haircut, had become cool again. His star was rising and, following a couple of successful New York gigs, Columbia Records wanted him back. The singer released The Art of Excellence in 1986, his first album to break into the charts since the early ’70s.
Appearing on an MTV awards show, alongside the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, cemented Bennett’s hip new image. And his kudos soared when stars Elvis Costello and K.D. Lang teamed up with him to sing classic American standards on MTV Unplugged in 1994. The album that followed, Tony Bennett: MTV Unplugged went platinum and earned the singer a new legion of fans.
In response to the album, The New York Times wrote, “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it.” And many more successes followed in the decades to come, including two Duets albums featuring huge names like Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. Bennett’s personal life was flourishing too, having found love again with long-time fan Susan Crow.
Despite being nearly 40 years younger than Bennett, Crow had always been besotted with the singer and was even a member of his fan club. She first met Bennett backstage at one of the star’s shows in 1985 when she was 19. Love blossomed and the pair began a life together in New York. They eventually married in 2007.
Life was pretty blissful for a while. Bennett’s career continued to thrive, while his passion for painting proved pretty fruitful too. A talented artist, Bennett’s work has been exhibited all over the world and even published in a 1996 book Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen. Also featuring his art, the John Sullivan book Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art & Music, became a best-seller.
After Bennett and Crow married in 2007, the singer asked his wife to join him on the road. Despite being in his 80s by then, Bennett still had a full touring schedule. As Crow told AARP magazine, “I was like, fine. Twist my arm!” She added, “It was a great life.” And so it continued for many years — until 2015, when Bennett became aware of a problem.
Bennett found himself struggling to recall the names of the musicians during his shows. “So, we got him a list that he put on the piano. But he wasn’t happy about it,” Crow told AARP. While his wife put Bennett’s memory lapses down to his advancing age, the singer was worried. He wanted to consult a medical professional. So the couple saw Gayatri Devi, M.D. in Manhattan in 2016.
The neurologist diagnosed Bennett with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that causes memory loss. With time, the condition tragically worsens until speech, recognition of loved ones and eventually most brain function becomes difficult. But there is some hope, as the speed that the disease progresses and quality of life for sufferers varies according to the individual.
Bennett was already showing signs of the illness when he and Lady Gaga began recording their new album between 2018 to 2020. In his article for AARP, John Colapinto describes some moving documentary footage, in which Gaga breaks down with emotion while watching the singer record a moving love song. Clearly it all got too much at times, seeing a man she is quoted as calling “an incredible mentor, and friend, and father figure” irreversibly changed.
Colapinto also describes how in the footage, Bennett’s protégé reminisces about their 2015 tour. She asks the singer, “Wasn’t that fun every night?” To which he simply replies, “Yeah,” with obvious uncertainty. At moments like that, Colapinto writes, “the pain and sadness in Gaga’s face is clear.” Similarly, when the journalist asks Bennett if he was excited about the new record with Gaga, “he stared at me silently” recalls Colapinto.
Yet there are glimmers of hope for the star’s future. “Tony Bennett brought an amazingly versatile brain,” Devi told Colapinto. He “has some cognitive issues, but multiple other areas of his brain are still resilient and functioning well,” she added. “He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do,” said the neurologist. “He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder.”
Thanks to his Alzheimer’s medication plus a carefully managed diet and exercise plan, Bennett is thriving — for someone with a degenerative disease anyway. Much of that is down to the support of his loving wife Susan, Devi told Colapinto. “I’ve been humbled by the level of devotion,” said the neurologist, adding, “She also expects a lot from him. […] She’s very much in love with him. And he rises to her expectations.”
His music has also “saved” Bennett, it seems. Connecting him to the life he once knew so well, but the memory of which is now fading. Devi recalled how she saw the singer being recognized by a fan in her waiting room. “Susan will say, ‘Tony B! A fan of yours is saying hello!’ And he then turns to the person with his big blues, smiles his smile and says, ‘How are you?’ or ‘Thank you!’” During moments like that he becomes Tony Bennett, the beloved performer again.
Because of this, the star’s doctor has urged Crow, and Bennett’s manager son Danny, to keep him singing. As doing shows will stimulate his memory and brain, slowing the Alzheimer’s’ progress. And proving the point – both told Colapinto about how they had seen the singer looking dazed and confused backstage. But once in the spotlight, he would seem as comfortable and confident performing as he ever had been.
Even so, Susan still worried about him. “I was a nervous frigging wreck,” she told Colapinto. “Yet he always delivered!” And in AARP, the journalist recounts watching the artist practice some numbers with his faithful pianist of many years, Lee Musiker. It was, according to Colapinto, “a miraculous concert that was, quite literally, a gift for an observer and a stroll down memory lane.”
They say laughter is the best medicine. But for Bennett, it seems that performing is the most powerful medication in his battle against dementia. “Singing is everything to him,” Susan told Colapinto, adding, “It has saved his life many times.” Visibly fighting emotion, she said: “There’s a lot about him that I miss. Because he’s not the old Tony anymore. But when he sings, he’s the old Tony.”
Before publicly sharing the news about the singer’s illness, Danny Bennett decided to consult his dad’s friend and protégé, Lady Gaga. “I wanted to check with her to make sure she was cool,” he told Colapinto, “because she watches his back all the time. She was like, ‘Absolutely, it’s just another gift that he can give to the world.’”