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How Music Helps Tony Bennett Battle Alzheimer’s

Though dealing with dementia, the singer still makes his way to the studio.

Tony Bennett in concert, 2007

Each year countless American families receive the devastating news that a loved one has Alzheimer’s. They join the 11 percent of American families living with Alzheimer’s today. Recently we learned that tragedy has struck the Benedetto family. 

You may have heard about it. Benedetto is the family name of legendary crooner Tony Bennett. He changed it at the behest of Bob Hope, who gave him one of his early breaks in show business. Tony Bennett is more than a brilliant showman, though. He is one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century and an accomplished visual artist as well. (He paints under his original name.)

I would never have been able to say I met Mr. Benedetto if it wasn’t for my good friend and longtime Guideposts supporter and board member, Evelyn Freed. We were making our way through the crowds on East 56th Street in Manhattan one spring night about a dozen years ago looking for a place to grab dinner when a man emerged right in front of us from a hair salon that was in the process of closing, carrying a bag of what looked like hair product. I took little notice, but Evelyn nudged me and said, “Hey, that’s Tony Bennett.”

I guess I’m used to seeing the occasional celebrity in New York. I tend to leave them alone, especially when they are buying personal grooming products. But Evelyn is fearless and friendly. With me in tow, she went right up to him and said what a big fan she was and how she’d recently attended one of his concerts in California, her home. 

The man couldn’t have been more cordial to us as pedestrians plowed past. I’m sure he had better places to be, but he was more than willing to give a few minutes to a couple of random fans on the street. Perhaps that’s why I am not surprised now when his family reports that he is in good spirits and does not suffer from the fear or anger or belligerence many Alzheimer’s patients exhibit, though his memory and mental faculties are in decline. He seemed like a man who wore his greatness lightly and was very comfortable with himself. 

According to sources, the 95-year-old Bennett, who was diagnosed in 2016, still rehearses several times a week and can sometimes remember entire songs without using sheet music. Researchers have studied the mysterious effect music has on damaged brains. When my wife, Julee, a singer herself, was working with another noted jazz singer, Bobby McFerrin, he told her the story of his father, an opera singer, who had lost the power of speech due to a major stroke. 

The one way Bobby and his father could communicate was through song. When Julee’s mother suffered aphasia following a stroke, Julee would sing to her over the phone and whenever she saw her, her mother following along. Even as her Alzheimer’s worsened, my mother could sometimes remember melodies, especially hymns, more easily than she could people or events. She loved the sing-alongs at her memory care facility. 

Shakespeare may have gotten it right with the opening line of Twelfth Night, when Orsino, the lovestruck duke, declares that if music is the food of love, play on. There is a juncture deep within our minds where love and music are conjoined, as if they are one thing. The great Tony Bennett was indeed celebrated for his love songs that made fans swoon in the 1950s and beyond. Say a prayer for Tony Bennett and his family that the music plays on.

And if you have any stories to share about music and Alzheimer’s, I’d love to hear about them.

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