One of the fondest celebrity-in-the-wild memories I have is of the late, great Tony Bennett and his sparkly shorts.
It was August 28, 2017 at Citi Field in New York. I made my way to my seat amidst a sea of sequin-encrusted, leather-strapped, and high-heeled attendees gathered and ready to watch Lady Gaga take the stage on the first of two Joan The world tour comes to a halt in his hometown when the crowd erupts in applause before the concert even begins. I noticed fans – from short-dressed gays to more modestly-dressed (and visibly older) people – standing up and clapping in unison. I spun around and my eyes met a very excited Bennett, who waved at an impromptu welcoming committee of disparate backgrounds, united in their enthusiastic welcome. He stayed for a while, smiling and waving to his adoring audience, and finally settled into a folding chair about 10 feet away from me for the rest of the show.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images(2) Lady Gaga with her friend and collaborator Tony Bennett
At first, Bennett’s thought – who was, at the time, a year into his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, although it hadn’t yet been made public – looking at his Cheek to cheek album partner spins and sings about masturbation on the Joan the tune “Dancin’ in Circles” was comedic, so I made a mental note to keep an eye out for Bennett during the performance. As Gaga propelled “Just Dance,” he shook in his seat; during “Poker Face”, he smiled. After “Applause”, he clapped. Seeing Bennett as a little monster — the name Gaga has used for her fan base since the start of her career — felt right at the time, and I couldn’t help but see the act of the audience applauding Bennett’s arrival earlier in the show as something altogether more powerful and indicative of the importance of their creative entanglement.
They first worked together in 2011, at the height of Gaga’s bizarre empirical era, following the release of her pop culture magnum opus. born like this, which had, months before, sold over a million copies in its opening week. This made its appearance on Bennett’s Jazz Duos II album — with them covering Mitzi Green’s 1937 song “The Lady Is a Tramp” — feel all the more shocking. No one could have predicted that one of modern pop’s biggest names would team up with an octogenarian, especially one with whom most of Gaga’s radical youth fanbase likely had only peripheral familiarity.
While “The Lady Is a Tramp” didn’t exactly set the charts on fire (and, perhaps, was never intended to), it laid the essential foundation for what would become one of the most important steps in shifting Gaga’s career from pop spectacle to an emphasis on vocal prowess. Following the release of born like thisshe faced a period of creative turbulence (another story for another piece) leading up to the unveiling of her 2013 album, art-pop, which has aged better in retrospect compared to how it landed back then. Many called it a flop (despite its No. 1 debut and the birth of one of Gaga’s biggest radio hits to date with her debut single, “Applause”). While art-popGaga’s path to success was unclear, it was obvious that Gaga needed cosmetic rehabilitation.
Enter Cheek to cheek, a Grammy-winning full-length album of jazz standards sung by Gaga and Bennett, with solo numbers sprinkled throughout. Gone are the electro-heavy, punchy bops of Gaga; her showgirl bravado combined with Bennett’s classic, smooth, smoky voice to create a most peculiar – yet no less satisfying – marriage of unlikely styles that simply, inexplicably, worked. The album reached No. 1 in late 2014 and led to Gaga’s showstop music sound medley at the 2015 Oscars. Suddenly, Gaga wasn’t just a pop starlet anymore — she was a respected singer, with Bennett leading the way.
What could have ended there as a feather in Gaga’s cap soon blossomed; the couple embarked on a 36 show Cheek to cheek toured from 2014 to 2015 and released the PBS concert special Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek Live!
Unbeknownst to the public, Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016, but Gaga continued to work with him throughout his life. They recorded their second and final joint album, 2021’s love for salebetween 2018 and 2020, and partnered with the emotional CBS special One last timewhich chronicles their last performance together on stage in New York.
Gaga regularly cried during the album’s promotional cycle, as she recounted savoring the moments of clarity she shared with Bennett as he lit up during their sessions together. His wife, Susan, even noted in a 2021 AARP profile which, even if she misses the man she first fell in love with, “when he sings, it’s the old Tony”.
Gaga seemed to confirm this in an interview with Anderson Cooper, in which she talked about escorting Bennett on and off stage for his final performances during their One last time gigs.
“I had to stay together because we had a sold-out show and I had a job to do. But I’ll tell you, when I came out on that stage and he said, ‘It’s Lady Gaga,’ my friend saw me, and it was very special,” she told Cooper, later adding, “It’s not a sad story. It’s emotional. It’s hard to see someone change. To see how it doesn’t affect his talent. I think he really pushed something to give the world the gift of knowing that things can change and you can still be beautiful.
So it’s only fitting that for a man whose talent was there for Gaga during the most trying time of her artistic career, she was the one to take him off the stage for the last time.
“Tony, we are all very grateful to have witnessed your talent, your generosity, your creativity, your kindness and your service over the years,” Gaga said, taking his arm. “Mr. Bennett, it would be an honor for me to escort you off stage,” she finished, and walked with Bennett out of sight to a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall.
The image is powerful, given Bennett’s recent health issues. It was a triumphant and celebratory end to a legendary story that could have been crowned with sadness, but instead saw one of the industry’s greats step down with a contemporary pop staple at the top of his game.
Towards the end, followers of both artists most likely saw what they were meant to see in the fruits of the duo’s relationship: a cross-generational connection of fans, musical styles and unlikely celebrity chemistry that did what the best forms of entertainment do – to entertain. But, tying it all together, the inexplicable, felt-in-the-air thrill we all felt watching two titans of the industry work their magic on stage was that sense of closeness, intimacy, and genuine affection that kept Gaga and Bennett together for more than just a one-off promotional gimmick. When they were together they were together. We were not simply dazzled by the spark ignited by the juxtaposed spectacle of Lady Gaga sing with Tony Bennett – you always felt that underneath it all, Anthony Dominick Benedetto saw Stefani Germanotta, whether he was next to her, in front of the cameras, giving the last salute of his career at a special big budget concert, or just watching her – and only her – from a chair in the audience of the Joan world Tour.
Sign up for Free daily newsletter from Entertainment Weekly to get the latest TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.