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.
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.”