“It was a gift,” says the pop chameleon (real name: Stefani Germanotta). “It’s a gift that I will hold in my heart ’til my last breath. My time with Tony has changed me forever. Frank Sinatra said he was the best singer in the world and I don’t think Frank lied.”
Gaga, 35, released her standards album “Cheek to Cheek” with Bennett in 2014, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and won a Grammy Award for best traditional pop vocal album. They pledged to do another album together, which took on new urgency when Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Their latest effort “Love for Sale” (out now) was recorded over two years, and features covers of 12 Cole Porter classics on its deluxe edition, including “It’s De-Lovely,” “You’re the Top” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
‘He’s my musical companion’:Lady Gaga salutes, duets with Tony Bennett at emotional New York show
Because of Bennett’s declining health, the recording process was frequently emotional for Gaga, who occasionally chokes up throughout this conversation.
“It’s hard to even talk about,” Gaga says. But “it’s important during times like this to be authentic and share the pain of the realities of what it’s like to have a loved one have Alzheimer’s or dementia. I really extend my heart to people who are going through a similar situation.”
Gaga and Bennett performed two sold-out concerts together at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in August in celebration of the album and his 95th birthday. She says she last spoke to him after those shows, but still checks in with his family regularly.
“I witnessed something in that man that let me know that he knew (me),” Gaga recalls. “He called me ‘sweetheart’ during rehearsals, but on our last night together, he said, ‘It’s Lady Gaga.’ That was the first time he had said my name in a long time. And he gave that gift to me. I know he dug deep to give me that gift and I’m really forever grateful.”
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Question: What’s a memory that sticks out from your Radio City shows with Tony?
Lady Gaga: My favorite moment was right after I was done singing, Tony went on stage and the curtain lifted up to reveal him. I planned that reveal for hours and hours and hours. And when he opened his mouth to sing “The Best Is Yet to Come” with that spotlight on him, I just burst into tears with joy. For me, that was an absolute privilege to be a part of. I just wanted everything to be perfect for him during his last moments on stage.
Q: How and when did you learn about his Alzheimer’s diagnosis?
Gaga: I began to witness Tony’s Alzheimer’s when we were together working in the studio. We just didn’t talk about it right away, and I focused my energy on caring for him and always following him. He really taught me that following the wisest person on stage is the way to go because jazz music is a complex music. It requires a true presence – you can’t be on another planet when you sing jazz, you have to be with your people. I always say jazz is not about me, it’s about us. It’s Black music, it’s the greatest American music that was ever made, and it came from a cry for true liberation. My dream for the future is to shine a light on even more jazz musicians.
Q: Tony only said a few words between songs at Radio City, but when it came to the music, he never missed a beat. What was it like witnessing that firsthand?
Gaga: It was absolute magic, I was so moved. I had to work a lot on breathing because I wanted to cry almost all the time, watching him just snap right into the moment. We also recorded some songs together while his Alzheimer’s was beginning to change his nature, and it was remarkable that he (remembered every lyric). It’s a testament to music being in Tony’s blood.
I love him so much. I miss him all the time, I pray for him all the time. I pray for his wife, Susan Benedetto, his sons, his family. I care very deeply for him.
Q: Tony said in 2014 that while recording “Cheek to Cheek,” you ordered in chandeliers and antique chairs to make the studio as “glamorous” as possible. Did you do anything similar this time around?
Gaga: We did, but I would replace “glamorous” with “classic.” I tried to make it as classic as possible in there. Mr. Bennett has always prepared the room for me as well in the most professional way. Whenever I arrive, everybody stands up. Everybody’s in a suit. Everybody gives me a hug and a kiss, or shakes my hand and says, “Hello, Lady.” As a young woman in the music industry, I had some very bad experiences. He really reminded me that I could be treated with dignity and authenticity and respect in the studio, and do what I love and feel love.
Q: Do you have a sentimental favorite from the album or a song that’s taken on new meaning for you?
Gaga: In terms of duets, “Love for Sale” is special to me. Part of what’s great about me and Tony is there’s 60 years between us, but we can sing a song about a prostitute and still swing it together. (Laughs.) We never cared that people would pass judgment on us because to us, it’s jazz music and we were honoring jazz.
And then I would also say my solo, “Let’s Do It,” has a special place in my heart now when I sing without Tony. Cole Porter says, “When the little bluebird who has never said a word starts to sing ‘Spring, spring’ / When the little bluebell at the bottom of the dell starts to ring, ding ding / When the little blue clerk in the middle of his work starts a tune to the moon up above / It is nature, that’s all / Simply telling us to fall in love.”
When I hear, “It’s nature, that’s all,” I think of Tony’s nature and that his nature has changed. And that’s OK because it’s nature, that’s all. It’s a time for love.
Q: What’s one of the most important lessons that Tony has taught you?
Gaga: “Straight ahead.” Right after “Cheek to Cheek,” I called him and said, “Hey, Tone, we’re No. 1 all over the world.” And he said, “That’s great. I’m going to make a record of all Cole Porter songs.” And I thought it was so funny that Tony was already straight ahead onto the next thing.
And he let me share my secrets with him. When I say secrets, I mean my life. He called me Lady but he talked to Stefani. The little girl in me that loved jazz sang with Tony Bennett. I know he called me Lady, but I know who his singing partner was: It was that little girl who loved jazz.