It’s a hot August mid-morning in Manhattan, and Danny Bennett is zooming along. He’s been moving at top speed pretty much all the time ever since taking on the business of being his father Tony Bennett’s manager in 1986: first reuniting Tony with his former label (Columbia), his onetime pianist (Ralph Sharon), and the charts (The Art of Excellence was Bennett’s first album to reach the charts since 1972), then turning him into an elder statesman of cool in the ’90s with appearances on Letterman, MTV, and alterna-rock radio concerts (“in between PJ Harvey and Nine Inch Nails,” Danny recalls).
Following his wildly popular MTV Unplugged showcase of 1994 (whose recorded version won a Grammy for Album of the Year), Danny’s managerial savvy steered Tony toward fellow hip icons such as Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Amy Winehouse, and most importantly, Lady Gaga, with whom father Bennett recorded 2014’s Cheek to Cheek, becoming the oldest person to reach No. 1 on the Billboard album chart at 88 years and 69 days old. To quote the man himself, “When others zig, I zag.”
Although such zigging and zagging isn’t exactly a thing of the past—Tony and Gaga released their second duets album, Love for Sale, a tribute to the songs of Cole Porter, in October—it is approaching sundown. In 2020, the Bennett family revealed that Tony has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease since 2016. He celebrated the album’s completion and his 95th birthday with a triumphant two-night stand at Radio City Music Hall in August. But, as of my conversation with Danny, the door had been closed on any additional concerts.
“It was a hard decision, as he is a capable performer,” Danny says of canceling the remainder of his father’s 2021 live engagements. “This is, however, doctors’ orders. He’ll be doing other things, but not those upcoming shows. We’re not worried about him being able to sing. He can sing. We are worried, from a physical standpoint … about human nature. Tony’s 95.”
The “other things” Danny’s talking about include the broadcast of an edited version of the Radio City concerts through Viacom/CBS (MTV’s owner), a 60 Minutes segment (aired in October), a Paramount+ documentary The Lady and the Legend, a Grammy Awards tribute, a remix of 1968’s Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album, and a potential biopic documenting the first 50 years of Tony’s life. “That’s just the start,” he adds. And in the immediate, there is the epically cool Love for Sale.
“It is a complex question of who and how he is now, at 95,” Danny Bennett says. “Dealing as we have with Alzheimer’s for the last four years, we know that it’s cognitive, that he has memory loss, but that that doesn’t mean that all this is inside of him. He doesn’t use a teleprompter. He knows every line… From the physical point of view of being a singer, it’s a muscle. He continues to do scales daily, bel canto, and works out with a trainer twice a week, and I’m amazed every time I hear him in his apartment. If he’s not in his art studio, he’s singing. Did we take chances doing the Radio City shows and recording another album? Yes. Tony’s always taken chances.”
When I tell Danny that I interviewed the late Glen Campbell after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the younger Bennett, 66, notes that there must be something special inside such men that allows them to hold onto their passions and display them nobly, despite the disease. “It could be flower arranging or cooking—if it’s deeply inside them, you can’t put people on a couch just because they can’t conveniently communicate. There is expression there. Tony may not remember all of the Radio City show, but damn if he didn’t say to me that night, ‘I love being a singer.’”
Why do Cole Porter songs for the new album? Danny says that the reasons are Tony’s, and part of a “silent agreement” where one man handles the music and the other the job of marketing/managing. “The idea mostly came out of conversations between Gaga and Tony. They talk. And one of Tony’s favorites was his ‘Cole Porter Suite’ that he would do during his improv days. She liked that idea and thought they should reinvent that. They didn’t wind up doing that, but a creative conversation was started. … It’s like James Joyce’s Ulysses—every chapter is an aspect of love, with the last word being ‘yes.’ This album is very much like that. ‘Let’s Do It’ shows a different aspect of love than ‘Night and Day.’ That was intentional. Tony and Gaga worked on that.” (Their planning had begun before 2017.)
Danny introduced his father to Gaga’s music, and Tony’s admiration was immediate. “The fact that she could do ‘Bad Romance’ and wear a meat dress, then belt out a standard with her all—it’s that work ethic he loves about Gaga, that and her love for the music. When they get together, the room lights up. There was a moment [during the Love for Sale sessions], I forget what song, but Gaga had an idea. She leaves me, walks across the studio, and I can see them but can’t hear them. Until he says, ‘No. Let’s do it like it’s written.’ She runs back to me and says, ‘I love him so much.’ How many people could hear ‘no’ and be so up about it? That’s those two, though: no egos, just serve the song. That’s the miracle of Tony. He’s still serving the art, just as he has forever.”
“Did we take chances doing the Radio City shows and recording another album? Yes. Tony’s always taken chances.”
Bennett acknowledges that with Love for Sale and the Radio City shows, his father is bidding the music world adieu. “But it’s never the final chapter, as I’m working on the next four decades of his work. He’s always said that he never wanted a hit song, but rather a hit catalog, a legacy.”
On a related subject, Danny has a funny story about Mitch Miller, the infamously white-bread chieftain of Columbia Records with whom Tony battled like cats and dogs over material.
“Mitch called me several months before he died, around my dad’s 90th birthday,” Danny says. “He’s deaf as a doorknob, screaming, ‘Hey, it’s Mitch.’ He talked about how they fought constantly because all he ever said was jazz, jazz, jazz: ‘But look at him now. Jazz saved his career. He’s made a success out of what he’s always wanted to do. Tell Tony I was wrong.’ I go to my dad’s apartment, and he’s in his studio painting—I don’t like to distract him—so I’m talking while he’s making brushstrokes, and I tell him what Mitch said, that he was wrong. Tony doesn’t stop painting. Doesn’t even look up, and says, ‘Well, I know that.’”