This is a bittersweet time to be a Tony Bennett fan

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Tony Bennett wearing a tux
"Tony Bennett 5" by John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Tony has performed for us into his 90s

I am reluctantly digesting the news that Tony has canceled his remaining tour dates and officially ended his live-performing career. This development—and the reasoning behind it—was confirmed by his son Danny.

Tony may be 95 and coping with Alzheimer’s—his family disclosed his struggle with the disease this year—but those of us fortunate enough to see his final shows with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall on August 3 and 5 could be forgiven for being a little surprised at the announcement. After all, we only just saw him take the stage and hit his notes with the same joie de vivre and emotional intensity fans around the world have come to expect over a jaw-dropping seven-plus decade career.

Tony is a survivor from a less superficial time, from before abs and Instagram followers could get you everywhere, and a skill set mattered most of all. He is like a vivid flower sprouting time and time again, refusing to give in to the weeds and concrete surrounding it.

We have finally been forced to accept that that flower won’t bloom forever.

I have been a devoted fan for nearly 15 years. Not one penny ever spent on Tony has been anything but completely worthwhile. I have taken a long list of those I love and cherish with me to see him, making priceless memories.

Judy Garland, the greatest gay icon of them all, marveled at Tony, championing him often: “I adore that man. I adore his talent, and I adore him as a person. When he smiles, it’s like the sun is coming up. I think the world needs Tony Bennett as much as I need to hear him. I think he’s the epitome of what entertainers were put on earth for.”

Such compliments are worth their weight in gold, considering Garland is often referred to as the greatest entertainer in recorded memory. Tony is among those of us who share that opinion, speaking reverently of Judy to this day.

I’ll never forget his 85th birthday concert at the Metropolitan Opera, where Elton John and Aretha Franklin were among Tony’s surprise duet partners. The occasion was so overwhelming that it was virtually impossible to properly take it in and absorb it. I knew I was seeing history. When you saw Tony Bennett, you were always seeing history.

We’re talking about a man who approached a duet with Elmo with the very same seriousness he gave a duet with Andrea Bocelli. His heart has always been wide open.

Tony has performed for us into his 90s with the import and gravitas of all that life experience to draw from, yet—miraculously—he never stopped doing so with the innocent joy of a kid just starting out, full of hope and wonder.

I once saw him perform in Atlantic City. He met my eyeline, saw that he had my attention, and sang “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” by Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman right to me. He nearly blew me out of my seat.

He recorded that song as a duet twice, first with George Michael and later with Aretha. It’s poignant that those two icons are no longer with us. It’s also been poignant to witness Tony’s stage presence gradually change through the last several years. His once smooth repartee with the audience slowly disappeared, and he occasionally forgot a line or two that once came easily. Even still, he exemplified the tenacity of the human spirit, remaining on the road despite the challenges, buoyed by the audience he so respected, determined to give them everything he had.

many don’t realize Tony has gone down in flames many times

Tony Bennett would not stop singing for us unless he absolutely had to.

Many don’t realize Tony—like Cher—has gone down in flames many times only to rise again like a phoenix.” He not only found himself out of work for long periods, with his persona and style considered washed up by the early 70s, but he pulled himself out of a stifling cocaine addiction that nearly killed him. He infamously battled with music executives who told him to record contemporary rock songs that were completely wrong for him when it would have been easier to simply give in. He even became entangled with the Mafia and somehow escaped its clutches over time. He approached his sixties facing crushing debt and few career prospects and worked diligently to rehabilitate his career until he became in fashion once again. He never had to compromise his artistry to get back on top—he simply stayed the course and waited for the world to catch up and realize that his gift is timeless.

If he ever became jaded through it all, he never let his audience know it—he gave us an oasis from all that.

Tony embodied the principle of workplace diversity long before that was a term

Tony has never forgotten his roots, exemplifying the work ethic and humble spirit of the mother he dearly loved. He has always stood up for and championed the underdog. When he served in World War II and refused to eat a meal separately from a black friend and fellow soldier, he paid for his antiracist principles with harsh, punishing assignments and was demoted from corporal to private. He proudly marched in Selma in 1965 alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance racial justice when his celebrity was considerable, and his allyship truly mattered. (Civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was executed by Ku Klux Klansmen shortly after dropping Tony off at the airport following the march).

He embodied the principle of workplace diversity long before that was a term, collaborating with a wide range of fellow performers and musicians through the years. The amount of times he has elevated gay writers by performing their songs is considerable—in fact, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” his signature song, was written by a gay couple, George Cory and Douglas Cross.

When Tony recorded the achingly beautiful “Blue Velvet” as a duet with his dear friend kd lang in 2011 (60 years after he first had a hit with it!), no pronouns were changed—they both sang of their longing for a woman they cherished and lost. There was no particular attention drawn to that—it just was—and that’s what makes it special. That and their first-class talent.

His second full-album collaboration with Lady Gaga (Love For Sale, due October 1) is a tribute to the work of the very witty—and very gay—Cole Porter, one of the great, tortured geniuses of 20th century American popular song. It would be difficult to count just how many times Tony has recorded Cole Porter songs over the years, but one thing is for certain—he will sing them on this new album as if it’s the very first time.

It doesn’t hurt that he has Lady Gaga in his corner, of course. She has truly been there for Tony, and he has for her.

Tony was mentored by the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and of course, Frank Sinatra. It was moving to see Tony pay it forward decades later, shepherding Gaga through a difficult time when, as she put it, she “didn’t even want to sing anymore.”

Tony Bennett wearing a grey suit
“Tony Bennett at Madame Tussaud’s New York” by InSapphoWeTrust is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

It may be hard to imagine a fierce, take-no-prisoner personality like Lady Gaga ever thinking of throwing in the towel, but show business can be cruel even in the wake of great success. She experienced that firsthand when she needed to take time off for the sake of her mental and physical health in the wake of her Artpop album. Once the giddy flow of cash took a pause, many she thought were friends fled from her like vultures from a carcass.

Then Tony showed up, seeking only her artistry and friendship, reminding her of what she was capable of. He took her phone calls when she needed the ear of someone who’d been there and would understand the pitfalls and pressures of the public eye.

Their unlikely pairing gave birth to something beautiful, unjaded, and—even with Gaga’s penchant for Vegas-y theatrics—completely devoid of gimmickry. She introduced her legions of Little Monsters to a living legend, while Tony showed his audience that there was genuine grit and gravitas behind the mask of this flashiest of pop stars. The move flattered them both—Gaga added vigor and spice to Tony’s mix while he threw her excesses into relief at just the right time in her still-burgeoning career, spotlighting the nuts and bolts of her talent. He softened her, but he certainly didn’t diminish her—quite the opposite—and that can be seen in the work she’s done since they began collaborating.

Through her close bond with Tony, Gaga showed her millions of fans that friendships with those much older can be uniquely rewarding and of considerable value. This is important in a culture that has a perverse fear of aging and routinely fails to recognize the worth and wisdom of the eldest among us. This has served to quietly subvert an aggressive strain of ageism unique to the LGBTQ community—the most popular gay icon of the decade could have done anything she wanted for her next project and would have made more money with new Top 40 hits and a stadium tour, yet she chose to work with a then 88-year-old elder statesman and called their first full-length collaboration, 2014’s Cheek to Cheek, “the most important album” of her career.

Their friendship came full circle with the “One Last Time” shows at Radio City Music Hall.

Through a perfect blend of openness of heart and showbiz professionalism, Gaga managed to give back to her mentor and champion all he has given her. For the first half of the evening, in which she alone commanded the stage, she consistently invoked Tony and his importance in her life and the greater cultural consciousness, emphasizing that this event was about celebrating his birthday and legacy, revving up the crowd’s enthusiasm and reminding the many who came primarily to see her that the night was about Tony. She insisted that her fans show him respect and pay attention when he took the stage.

Ovations accompanied the finish of nearly every song Tony sang

When Tony appeared at the start of the evening’s second half, waves of love lifted from the audience and enveloped him, proof positive that they heeded Gaga’s instructions, and he returned that love in kind throughout his 40-minute solo set, taking palpable delight in being able to perform for an audience again. There were only a handful of Little Monsters fidgeting with their Yondr pouches, impatient for their idol to return to the stage.

Rudy Palma standing
Rudy Palma standing outside Radio City Music Hall window card on August 3, 2021

Ovations accompanied the finish of nearly every song Tony sang, and for good reason—he still had every bit of his talent at his disposal, thrilling us with the power of his vocals and force of his conviction. It was impossible not to get caught up in the bittersweet beauty of the moment as he owned every inch of Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask,” a song that captures his essence better than any other. The surprise appearance of Harold Arlen’s “Last Night When We Were Young”—a song closely associated with Garland and Sinatra, which Tony has not performed live in a very long time—was almost too heart-aching to bear. The entire audience was hushed, hanging on his every nuance.

Tony was a little less sure of himself when Gaga came on stage to duet with him, but he had nothing to worry about—she camped it up for the delighted audience, held Tony’s hand, and prompted him with song titles, holding back so his vocals would ring clearer in dramatic moments and singing his lines the few times he forgot them as if that were how it was planned.

The fervor and frenzy of the Little Monsters waiting for Gaga were overwhelming

She set Tony up to shine brighter than she would, setting aside any trace of her own ego.

At the very end of the August 5 show—Tony’s final public performance—she sweetly held out her hand and said it would be her honor to escort him backstage.

My friend and I waited to catch a glimpse of Tony as he exited a stage door for possibly the last time. The fervor and frenzy of the Little Monsters waiting for Gaga were overwhelming—one was so laser-focused on his goal that he stepped hard on a woman’s foot and didn’t even notice as she cried out in pain. One would have thought the Pope was coming and that everyone gathered needed a blessing for a sick relative. When barricades were moved, and people pushed each other out of the way to get a closer spot, my friend and I decided to leave and keep our memories. Many did not remember what their idol had told them—that this night was about Tony.

I am that unicorn that is heard about but seldom seen among gay men of my generation—an objective Lady Gaga fan. For every move she makes that I enjoy, there is another I am critical of. I find she often delivers more on the surface than in the details and that her live performances tend more toward steely athleticism than taking the audience to another place.

But none of that matters here.

The world is Lady Gaga’s oyster—she can do virtually anything she wants with her time—and this summer, she chose to work hard—very hard—to give her dear friend the proper sendoff he so richly deserved, one which the pandemic nearly stole.

These performances were a deeply moving and highly privileged thing to see, and none of it would have been possible without her generosity.

She proved more than ever at Radio City Music Hall why she is a beautiful soul and an icon of my generation. Whatever you think of her music, you should know this about her.

The Great Garland also said, “I’d like to see nothing but goodness for Tony all his life because he deserves that. I’d like to see him respected and honored and acclaimed for the great artist he is.”

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Judy is one of many departed show business greats smiling down with warm approval and gratitude. Gaga did them, and Tony, very proud indeed.