They Can't Take That Away from Me

I am a huge Tony Bennett fan. The last of the original interpreters of the "great American Songbook,” he is, at 95, a national treasure. He has been making music and entertaining audiences for seven decades by now. Sinatra once called him the best singer that he knew.

So, I was interested in the 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper last Sunday night. It was about his Alzheimer's disease and his final concert this summer—at Radio Music Hall, with Lady Gaga. It had me clapping and crying at the same time. Audrey and I saw Tony at Wolf Trap five years ago and knew that it would probably be the last time for us. In typical fashion, the great crooner gave a masterful performance and had to be pulled off the stage when it was time for lights out.

Now, with Alzheimer’s, his speech is slow, and he is often vacant. He sits quietly while his wife, Susan, answers for him. He remembers her name, and the names of this children—but not much else, even what he did just yesterday.

Yet—when the music starts on the piano, the showman is back. He's Tony Bennett again, singing song after song from memory, without notes, cue cards, or sheet music. In the concert with Lady Gaga in August, he was once again brilliant. He called her by her name for the first time in months. He didn't miss a note.

Music is the last thing to go, it seems. There's a place in the brain, even a tragically diseased brain, where songs exist and long endure. Lyrics and melodies from our coming-of-age years persist there. When names and experiences can no longer be recalled, it will be the melodies that linger on.  It was the same with Glen Campbell. Maybe someone you know, too.

What will be the music that you remember when you can no longer recall your name?

My son kids me and says that he will be reciting rap songs—but I doubt it. Where's the art and the beauty in that?  For me, it will be some of Tony Bennett's repertoire for sure. Cole Porter and Gershwin classics. Plus, James Taylor, the Beatles, Kenny Rogers, and Motown. I can hear some of that stuff on Sirius radio, and songs I've not heard in 20 years come back instantly, word for word.

But also, Christian music. The old hymns we sang in my church when I was a child. The music we performed in youth choir when I was a teenager. It's all still there, somewhere deep in my brain and my soul—coming out in phrases sung and sometimes whistled. Lyrics that bring me to tears when they are heard again just when it seems I need them most.

Good music has a way of sticking with you—and bad music, too, I suppose. So, it is best to put in the good while you are young. To "sing and make melody in your heart to the LORD" (Ephesians 5:19) every chance you can now—so it will be there for you when you face the darkest moments of your life. Or dark confusion itself.

So deep in your heart, it's really a part of you.

Roger McGee and his excellent music staff are trying to help us—children, teenagers, and adults of all ages—to form those lasting connections with great music from several ages. I'll always be grateful for that!  And on some foggy day in the long distant future, you may find that you are grateful, too.


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