In 1994, longtime MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti was watching late-night TV, when he heard something that made him sit bolt upright in his bed. His epiphany led to one of the most iconic and memorable performances in Unplugged history, and introduced Tony Bennett, who died July 21 at age 96, to an entire new generation. (Gen Z will surely discover Bennett via MTV Unplugged throughout this weekend, when MTV re-airs the special several times in tribute.) And in a full-circle development, three decades later Coletti would executive-produce another generation-spanning TV special, One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, which was the ailing crooner’s final public performance.
“I was watching David Letterman one night in bed, and Tony was on the couch,” Coletti recalls to Yahoo Entertainment. “Tony had recently [co-presented] at the 1993 VMAs with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he was as having a ‘moment’ in pop culture. Dave asked Tony, ‘How is it that you’re so cool?’ And Tony said, ‘You know, Dave, I’ve been unplugged my whole life.’ And I literally fell out of my bed trying to reach for a pad and pen. I was like, ‘Yes! Tony Bennett Unplugged!’
Coletti knew that Bennett, who was 67 at the time, “wasn’t an obvious choice for Unplugged,” because the series had “never strayed that far outside the MTV playlist.” But “there was clearly an effort” at the time by Tony’s son and manager, Danny, to “make him relevant to a younger audience” — a campaign that included Tony’s appearance alongside the Chili Peppers at the MTV Video Music Awards and a cameo on The Simpsons. “The seeds were starting to be planted in my head, but it wasn’t until that one night that I was like, ‘Oh my God, we have to do this. … So, the next day I went to [Viacom president] Doug Herzog and [Sony Music CEO] Donnie Ienner, and got everyone to sign on.”
Coletti was fully prepared to beg Herzog, “Now Doug, don’t think I’m crazy!” But thankfully, “Doug instantly got it. He lit up. There was no convincing. No one needed convincing. We were all in.”
However, the MTV brass still needed to figure out how to package Bennett for the network’s Generation X viewership, and Coletti admits, “I think we might have been trying a little too hard to ‘MTV’ him up with some of the other names, and it didn’t ring true. … At first it was like, ‘Does Tony do a Chili Peppers song? Does he do songs from MTV artists?’ And Danny very smartly said, ‘No, no, no, no. Let Tony be Tony. If you want Tony at his best, just let him do his thing.’”
The only two younger artists that ended up guesting on Bennett’s finished MTV Unplugged episode were ones who “made a lot of sense” due to their love of the Great American Songbook: Elvis Costello, with whom Bennett “had a very deep personal friendship,” on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and k.d. lang, who “for MTV was a bit of an outlier as well, because she definitely wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll,” on “Moonglow.” But two ‘90s college-rock outliers surprisingly almost made the cut.
“There were other names on a list that we didn’t go to. I’m sure for second we said the Chili Peppers because that just was obvious, but it didn’t really make sense. … But J. Mascis [from Dinosaur Jr.] and Evan Dando [of the Lemonheads] actually both were at the taping, and they did perform with Tony. But those songs didn’t make the final show,” reveals Coletti, who believes Mascis and Dando’s full unreleased performance still exist somewhere in the “MTV library,” although snippets did make it onto MTV News.
“J. Mascis played guitar on ‘St. James Infirmary,’ and Evan sang on ‘Solitude,’ by Duke Ellington. But it felt a little random when we looked back [at the footage],” Coletti explains. “It’s hard to sing with Tony Bennett, to Evan’s credit — to stand up there and even attempt it. It’s not easy. So, we just felt like, ‘Let’s stick in Tony’s lane here.’ Sometimes you have to make the difficult phone calls and say, ‘Hey, we think this is what will make the best show.’ They were both very understanding.”
Of course, a legend like Bennett didn’t need any special guests to help his show appeal to fans of all demographics. “It’s funny when I say how ‘young’ the audience was, because everyone that worked on the show was like, ‘Can I bring my parents?’ I brought my parents,” Coletti chucklingly recalls of Bennett’s Unplugged taping at New York’s Sony Studios on April 12, 1994. “You put Tony in front of any audience and he’s going to win, no question. But he was super-happy to look out and see many young faces in the crowd, and he performed his heart out, as always.”
By ‘94, Coletti had already produced legendary Unplugged shows with Paul McCartney, LL Cool J and other hip-hop all-stars, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Pearl Jam, and of course Nirvana, but Bennett’s episode became one of the series’ most famous and beloved — as well as one of its smoothest-running productions. “When Tony said, ‘I’ve been unplugged my whole life,’ he was not kidding, so in that sense it was a very easy day,” says Coletti. The only struggle, ironically, was trying to get Bennett to play less to his adoring audience.
“Unplugged was always shot in the round, but when you think about it, the audience was primarily behind the artist, because we had to put the cameras in the front. The audience behind was more like window-dressing. If you ever went to an Unplugged taping back in the day, you probably saw the back of the artist more than the front,” Coletti explains. “But Tony performs for an audience. He does not care about the camera. So, although we said, ‘Mr. Bennett, please, this is your camera,’ any time applause started, he would naturally turn around and sing to the audience! It was kind of fun chasing him visually on camera. Beth [McCarthy-Miller], our director, said, ‘We should call the show Tony’s Back, because that’s all I see!’”
Once Coletti began editing the (Mascis/Dando-less) final product, he knew “this was magic, for sure… just beyond anything I would’ve imagined,” even by MTV Unplugged’s already high standards. Perhaps that’s why the MTV Unplugged franchise never tried to capture lightning in a bottle again, and never taped another performance with a Great American Songbook crooner from Bennett’s generation after Bennett’s well-received Unplugged aired on June 1, 1994. “This was a turn off a highway, then we got right back on the highway and did our normal Unpluggeds. We knew it was kind of a detour we were taking — that we wanted to take — but we didn’t want to keep going down that road. This was the one,” Coletti explains.
It was a detour well worth taking, as MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett later won the Grammy for Album of the Year — a feat achieved by only one other Unplugged album, Eric Clapton’s. “It was great to see Tony’s album travel so far and appeal to such a wide spectrum of music-lovers; it performed beyond our expectations,” says Coletti, who was present at the 1995 Grammy Awards ceremony at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium, where Bennett performed with k.d. lang and received the top honor. “‘Album of the Year’? I did not believe that when they read that! I was so happy for him, and his enthusiasm and contagious positivity — we felt it up in the balcony. It was wonderful.”
Bennett continued to make new fans and reach young new audiences, eventually forming a deep friendship and musical partnership with Lady Gaga, who was age 8 the year that Bennett taped Unplugged. Coletti was the perfect person to produce another one of Bennett’s most iconic TV performances, CBS’s One Last Time special with Gaga, but since he’d just taken a job with The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on rival network NBC, he thought he’d miss the opportunity when Danny Bennett called to offer him the gig in 2021. Thankfully, Fallon was on hiatus the week of that two-night taping, and NBC granted Coletti permission to moonlight, so Coletti was able to be part of another “unbelievable” moment in Tony Bennett history. “I was very lucky to be that guy that got that call. … Getting that call was one of the greatest professional and personal joys of my life,” he says.
Bennett’s One Last Time concerts with Gaga, which took place Aug. 3 (Tony’s 95th birthday) and 5, 2021 at Radio City Music Hall, were not billed as farewell shows; his official retirement was announced eight days later. “I think Danny had hoped maybe there could be some residencies or performances for Tony, even though touring was off the table. Throughout this whole time, Tony’s pianist would come to the house every day and he’d sing, so we knew that he was ready to do this,” says Coletti. “I think there was hope [that Tony would continue to perform], but as time went on, when we named the show [One Last Time], we kind of assumed not.”
By this point, Bennett’s Alzheimer’s disease, which he’d been living with since 2016, had advanced, so no one could predict the condition he would be on the actual show days, which were set up to promote Bennett’s second duets album with Gaga (and final studio album overall), Love for Sale. “It was touch-and-go the whole time, because we knew it could change at any minute. Tony could not be well enough,” says Coletti. “And then COVID, out of nowhere, came roaring back that July. It had felt like we were all just starting to take our masks off for about a week in July, and then it just came back with a vengeance. We really threaded that needle, because later that month of August, things shut down again. Somehow, this show was meant to happen, but it could have gone wrong in so many different ways.”
However, everything came together perfectly once Bennett was on the Radio City stage. “We didn’t want to push him hard on soundchecks. And he was OK in soundcheck. But no one, no one, was prepared for what happened when that curtain went up on that audience,” Coletti marvels. “He feeds on energy in a way that I’ve never seen from anyone and gives it back at that same level. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed. And the second night was even better than the first. … His muscle memory, the room, it all just connected. Watching him soak that up and then take that and turn it into magic was incredible.
“But really the most special moment was the second night, when Gaga reentered [the stage],” Coletti continues wistfully. “Let’s make sure to talk about her performance, because not only did she have to go up and kill on her own, but she had to perform with Tony. And that meant more than just singing with him. That meant guiding him through it — physically, lyrically. It was an unbelievable feat of both musicianship and love. My daughter was maybe 3 at the point and I thought, ‘I hope you love me the way that she loves him,’ because it was the most beautiful thing to see. And so Gaga leaves and he does his set, and then she reenters and he looks to the side and he exclaims, ‘Lady Gaga!’ And you can just see her burst into tears, because earlier that day, he did not remember her name. That’s the reality of where he was at that time. He had moments where he didn’t [recognize people], and to see that joy on her face… I’m getting choked up just talking about it. It was everything.”
Coletti didn’t get to stay a proper goodbye to Bennett that evening, because of COVID restrictions and physical distancing, but he is content with his memories. “I didn’t need to have a private moment with him. Just to be able to be connected to headsets and be plugged into that performance as it was happening was all I ever needed,” he insists. “But what was really nice was the crew got a text from his wife [Susan Benedetto] when the show aired [on Nov. 28, 2021], of the two of them watching it. And the look on his face was worth everything. That photo means everything to me. He was one in a million, really.”
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