At first (or even second) glance, it’s an unlikely pairing. He’s the elegant, gentlemanly jazz icon who left his heart in San Francisco, singing classics from the Great American Songbook. She’s the dance-pop sensation known for flamboyant costumes (a meat dress, a Kermit the Frog jacket), fame-themed hits (“Paparazzi,” “Applause”), and fans dubbed Little Monsters. Yet Tony Bennett, 88, and Lady Gaga, 28, actually have a lot in common. They’re both proud Italian-American New Yorkers who cherish family; they’ve sold millions of albums, won multiple Grammys, and weathered career ups and downs; they even live near each other on Manhattan’s Central Park South. And they share a love of the music written by American masters like Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin that has resulted in a close friendship and a tuneful collaboration.
Their first musical partnership was a sassy take on “The Lady Is a Tramp” in 2011. Now Tony and Lady (as they call each other) have recorded an album, Cheek to Cheek, due Sept. 23; highlights include buoyant duets on “Anything Goes” and the title track, as well as powerful solo renditions of “Sophisticated Lady” (his) and “Lush Life” (hers). “These songs never go out of style,” Bennett says. “Like a good black dress!” adds Lady Gaga (née Stefani Germanotta). The duo sat down in his art studio (Bennett is an accomplished painter and watercolorist; the home he shares with his wife of seven years, Susan Crow, is nearby) to talk about music and how he helped her through a troubling time when, she says, “I didn’t even want to sing anymore.”
PARADE: How did you two meet?
TONY BENNETT: At a benefit concert. It was the first time I heard Lady perform, and I could not believe the audience’s reaction. I went backstage, and she was there with her parents.
LADY GAGA: I walked offstage sweating, and they said, “Mr. Tony Bennett wants to meet you.” My father got all choked up, and my mother said, “Oh, I need to fix my hair!” We all had champagne. I was so happy to meet him.
TB: The first thing I said was, “Let’s do an album together.” And she said, “Okay.” That quick. I just love what she did on this album. She’s up there with Ella Fitzgerald, who was the greatest singer in the world.
LG: Working with Tony has reaffirmed everything I knew but that you start to forget when your life changes and it gets really noisy. For Tony, it’s all about great music.
How did you each start out in music?
TB: I attended the American Theatre Wing School in New York [after serving in combat in World War II]. The first thing they taught me is to only sing quality—intelligent songs. Never treat the audience disrespectfully. It was a wonderful lesson. I had a teacher on 52nd Street, Mimi Spear; she said to me, “Don’t imitate another singer, because you’ll just be one of the chorus if you do. To learn how to phrase, study musicians—a piano player, a saxophone player—and see how they’re phrasing.” I took her advice. It sounds so simple, but if you just be yourself, you’re different than anyone else.
LG: I studied art history and music at NYU. After one year, I said, “I already know about music. I need to go out and play it.” My parents were very mad at me. I said, “Just give me a year to make something happen.” And I got jobs—a coatroom girl, a waitress. Were you a singing waiter, Tony?
TB: [laughs] Oh, yeah. We did the same thing!
LG: I tried to get gigs downtown, and after a few years I had a little following. Then some people tried to control me. On my earlier records they wanted to make my voice more electronic and auto-tuned for radio. That’s why this album with Tony is so amazing, because he’s hearing me sing raw, without any of that. And he’s protecting me from people trying to control what I sound like.
Tony, you sang in jazz clubs. But Lady Gaga, when you started making it, you had to fill stadiums, right?
LG: I didn’t have to, but I feel fortunate that my first album [2008’s The Fame] sold 17 million. Who knows why? [laughs] Yes, we filled stadiums, but that doesn’t mean it will last a lifetime.
You don’t believe it will?
LG: I want it to. I have to make music; I love it.
You both became famous early on. Why was fame important to you?
TB: My ambition was to help my mother after my father died [when Bennett was 10]. She was raising three children, working [as a seamstress] for a penny a dress. Fortunately, my first hit record became so big I was able to transplant my mother into nature in Englewood, New Jersey.
LG: Tony, you’re such a good man. So sweet! You sound like my boyfriend, Taylor [actor Taylor Kinney]. He always says, “I just want to make it for my mom.” I feel the same way.
On Cheek to Cheek, Lady Gaga, you sing a poignant jazz classic, “Lush Life.”
TB: Lady said, “That’s one song I have to do.” She nailed it. You can hear her whole life in it.
LG: When I was 13, I’d sing [that song] with the Regis High School boys’ choir. I didn’t understand what the lyrics were about, but I understood the melody in a very intense way. Now I know everything that song is about. When I sang it [on this album] for the first time in 15 years, I started crying. I came into the control room, had my whiskey, and Tony held me and I cried in his arms. I kept saying, “Am I a mess, Tony? I don’t want to be a mess. I want to make you proud.” He said, “No, you’re not a mess. You’re a sophisticated lady.”
“Lush Life” is about loss, failure, and heartache. Did the song hit you as hard as it did because you’ve had some problems recently? [Lady Gaga had hip surgery last year and in November parted ways with her manager.]
LG: It’s heartbreaking. Six months ago I didn’t even want to sing anymore.
TB: Do you know what Duke Ellington said? He said, “Number one, don’t quit. Number two, listen to number one.”
LG: Right! The other day, Tony said, “I’ve never once in my career not wanted to do this.” It stung. Six months ago I didn’t feel that way. I tell Tony every day that he saved my life.
You felt like giving up? Why?
LG: I’m not going to say any names, but people get irrational when it comes to money—with how they treat you, with what they expect from you. … But if you help an artist, it doesn’t give you the right, once the artist is big, to take advantage of them. … I was so sad. I couldn’t sleep. I felt dead. And then I spent a lot of time with Tony. He wanted nothing but my friendship and my voice. [She begins to cry.]
TB: [quietly] I understand. [He holds her hand.]
LG: It meant a lot to me, Tony. I don’t have many people I can relate to.
People you can relate to, or people you can trust?
How do famous people know if someone truly loves them and isn’t just using them?
TB: Well, you stay close to your family. Lady does. That’s what I did. [In 1979, Bennett’s career and finances were in turmoil, and his sons helped him turn things around.] I made a very good move when I said, “I’m going to have my son [Danny] manage me.” My other son [Dae] is my engineer on my recordings—he’s fantastic.
LG: What Tony’s trying to say in a nice way is that you can’t trust anybody.
LG: You can trust your family. You know, there were people I was sure were my friends. … I’m still learning. Now I’m a lot more careful.
TB: I have a great friend from when I was a singing waiter in Astoria [in Queens]. He has a little group that plays on Thursdays in a restaurant there. He’s still the same guy; I’m still the same. It has nothing to do with fame or success. He’s just happy to see me. And that’s the real thing.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from each other?
TB: Nobody has communicated with the public more than Lady Gaga. Ever. I trust the audience, and I’m very impressed. As far as they’re concerned, she’s part of their family. The only guy who ever did that was Bing Crosby, years ago.
What have you learned from Tony?
LG: That it’s important to stay true to yourself. When I came into this with Tony, he didn’t say, “You’ve got to take off all the crazy outfits and just sing.” He said, “Be yourself.”… You know, people wrote a lot of things about my last album, Artpop, which was very controversial. If it didn’t grab the whole world the way The Fame Monster did, that’s okay, because I know it’s good. That’s what Tony has taught me, that my intuition is right. When he talks about the 66 albums he’s put out, the peaks and valleys, and how it’s not about having a hit record—it’s the most inspiring thing.