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San Francisco Loved Tony Bennett Right Back

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Tony Bennett performs at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco in February, 2000. (Lea Suzuki / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

T

he first time I ever saw Tony Bennett was in 1995, for a free noontime show in Union Square. In San Francisco. Naturally.

After proclamations by various city figures — I distinctly remember Angela Alioto got booed — Bennett took the stage with his trio of piano, bass and drums, and went right into what he did so well, over and over. What he was unquestionably born to do, really, until his death this week at age 96.

My friend Kim and I stood in the large crowd with a sense of awe. There we were, seeing a legend, Tony Bennett, for free, singing timeless numbers like “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “Fly Me to the Moon” with elegant grace. All around the square, the city seemed to grind to a halt. Cabbies on Geary Street leaned their heads out to listen. Hotel guests in the upper floors of the St. Francis watched out of their windows.

And then, in the heart of the city with which he’d be forever associated, Tony Bennett started singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The crowd collectively sighed — a good sigh — as Bennett settled into the familiar verse about going home to his city by the Bay.

Right then and there, in the middle of Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” a cable car rattled up Powell Street behind the stage, piercing the hushed city quiet. In a moment I’ll never forget, right on time with the song, it rang its bell.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein rides a cable car with Tony Bennett. June 22, 1984. (Frederic Larson/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

There was no singer in the world like Tony Bennett. Or, I should say, there were many singers like Bennett, tons of Steve Lawrences and Vic Damones and Al Martinos. But none on his level of seemingly effortless technique, nor his gift of interpretation. As Frank Sinatra once said, in his famous quote to Life magazine about Bennett being “the best singer in the business”: “He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more.”

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How Bennett came to record the defining song about San Francisco is a story full of improbable twists and turns, ending with the city adopting it as one of two official songs, artist-painted hearts all over the city, a statue in front of the Fairmont Hotel, and the ceremonial playing of the song at the ballpark after Giants games. (Or, occasionally, Bennett waltzing onto the field and singing it live.)

Former San Francisco Giants Willie Mays (L) stands with singer Tony Bennett (R) as the San Francisco Giants honor Bennett for his 90th birthday prior to the start of the game against the New York Mets at AT&T Park on August 19, 2016 in San Francisco. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Written by George Cory and Douglass Cross, a gay couple then living in Lake County, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was recorded almost on a fluke. In 1959, Cory and Cross had run into Bennett’s pianist Ralph Sharon on the street in New York and handed him the sheet music. Two whole years later, before going on the road out West, Sharon tossed it into his suitcase on a whim.

After trying the song out in after-hours sessions, Bennett premiered it at the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel in 1961; the applause was so great he was forced to turn right around and sing it again.

Not everyone liked “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Herb Caen once called it “a travel poster, and just as two-dimensional.” Bob Grimes, a San Francisco store proprietor who built one of the largest private collections of sheet music in the country, said to the San Francisco Chronicle that it was “saccharine, soporific and focuses on people who are out of the city rather than its residents.”

Plus, Bennett had so many other songs. Hundreds. “Just In Time.” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” “The Good Life.” “Because of You.” “For Once in My Life.” The list goes on and on. All indelible reminders that love and sincerity are more valuable than jadedness and irony. All sung in thousands of concerts all over the globe, and punctuated on the final downbeat by Bennett’s signature pose: outstretching his arms to the audience and smiling wide.

Tony Bennett performs on stage during a concert in Everett, Massachusetts in 2019. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

I was lucky to have seen Bennett six or seven times over the years. One time I paid $125 for a ticket; another time, I snuck in for free. Yet another time I hung around the backstage door afterward to watch him emerge, flanked by two large Italian bodyguards, and got to shake his hand.

The last time he came around was in 2018, two years into his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I had made an unusual habit of bringing tattooed friends from the punk scene to see Tony Bennett with me, but this time was special: I went with my 9-year-old daughter.

At an incredible 92 years old, he sang 24 songs. And then, at the end of the night, came another Tony Bennett moment I’ll never forget: he set the microphone down, walked to the front of the stage, and, unamplified, sang “Fly Me to the Moon” to the rafters.

 

It brought the house down.

It’s true that Tony Bennett genuinely loved San Francisco. But San Francisco loved him right back, tenfold. Wherever he is now, he’s left much more than his heart here. Indeed, a giant piece of him is woven into this city — and me — forever.

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