There’s this cool cat named Tony, who you may have heard of, and Tony likes to sing. He’s been doing it for a long, long time, and he’s pretty darned good at it, just as you’d expect. His signature song — ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ — was not originally written for him by composer George Cory and lyricist Douglass Cross, but for a San Francisco Opera contralto named Claramae Turner. She sang the song in live performances quite a bit through the 1950s before it was well known, and even did a recording of it that was lost to obscurity for many years.
Here she is, giving it a go with piano accompaniment…
Tony got a hold of the song through his longtime friend and accompanist, the late, great Ralph Sharon, and first sang it to a live audience at The prestigious Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room in 1961, and then recorded it in 1962. It became such a big hit over the years, that cool cat Tony even has an official heart that he left in San Francisco, on display at the Northwest corner of Union Square. It’s a large metallic heart shaped sculpture with a depiction of The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay that Tony painted himself in 2004.
Tony Bennett’s Heart in Union Square/By Ltleelim – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
In an odd little sidebar, I actually met Tony in the 1990s, and by ‘met’ I mean, ‘walked by him at the United Airlines Terminal in Medford, Oregon.’ I was driving a taxi at the time to pay the bills, back when Dorian and I lived in Ashland Oregon, and I often made runs to the Medford airport, which was about the size of a couple of football fields but with airplanes.
I’d just taken a fare to catch the morning United to LA, and after the guy paid me I left my cab curbside and ran in to use the boy’s room, the entrance of which was right inside the door of the terminal about 30 feet to the left. There was some terminal seating right by the restroom entrance and seated in that seating was the one and only Tony Bennett, along with a lady who I assumed must have been Mrs. Bennett. Both of them were probably waiting to board that same flight.
I’d heard his son had a nice spread a little north of Medford in the rustic Oregon town of Rogue River, and since this was around Christmas time it made sense that they’d been up for a visit but were now flying back down to LA to connect to whatever.
I would have stopped to say hi and tell him how much his music had meant to me over the years, and all that stuff that people likely say every single time the poor guy sits around in public, but some lady had beat me to it. She was standing in front of him, holding his hand in an elongated and very awkward and uncomfortable (for him) handshake while saying, “I’ve been a fan for many, many years, and we’re from Kansas…” She indicated her shy-looking probably husband standing next to her, a fella looking like he’d rather be off having a beer.
That’s all I heard because I really had to pee, so I dashed past them with the hope that after I was done and had thoroughly washed my hands, I could go out and do the awkward elongated handshake with the great Tony Bennett. I’d tell him how much his music had meant to me and where I was from, which was San Francisco, which I bet would have gone over better with him than Kansas. I would have been lying though, because I’m really from Stockton California, which is a crime-ridden shithole, but it would only take a drug dealer or gang member about two hours to drive to San Francisco from there, so close enough.
I didn’t get a chance because Kansas lady, who I’ll call ‘Auntie Em,’ was still yapping at him. I just walked past slowly, not having to pee now, and basked in the presence of being so near to someone so… Tony-ish.
When I got back to the taxi I picked up the taxi-radio microphone and called Mac, a fellow driver who I happened to know was a Tony Bennett fan because we’d sat in a parking lot in our respective taxis just the week prior to that, and he was the one who told me that Tony had a son who lived in Rogue River. The subject had been celebrities who live in the area or had sons who live in the area, so that’s when I learned that actor Patrick Duffy had a spread somewhere around there too, but I don’t know if he has a son.
“Hey Mac!” I said into the taxi microphone, “If you get a chance to swing by the United terminal at Medford airport, Tony Bennett is sitting right there by the restrooms. I think he’s waiting for the United to LA, so you better get there within the next half-hour if you want to catch him.”
He thanked me for the tip and said he’d head over there, having just dropped off a lady at a supermarket about ten minutes away. I didn’t see or talk to him until much later that day, back at the taxi dispatch office as we were all sitting around cashing out and doing our paperwork before going off shift. As he pulled up a seat across from me I said, “Hey buddy, did you make it there in time to say hi to Tony Bennett this morning?”
He grumbled, “Yeah, he was still there but I didn’t get a chance to say anything, the poor bastard was getting his ear chewed off by some broad from Kansas.”
Tony has sung that wonderful anthem about San Francisco literally thousands of times over the years to live audiences all over the world. I’ve caught his live act several times, including one evening at The Fresno County Fair, with a background chorus of hogs a-snortin’ and the delicious aroma of corn dogs and stale mustard wafting through the air.
This video is a pretty good live taping of ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ that was aired by MTV in the 90s…
So, good ol’ cool cat Tony, who is 93 now going on still wonderful, got together with a really nice San Francisco lady named Charlotte Schultz and they proposed the idea of having everyone in the city lean out their windows or stand on their balconies to simultaneously belt out that great song on Saturday, April 25th at noon 0’clock exactly.
So I did.
I don’t have a balcony and I didn’t have time to fashion one out of a desk and some rope, so I sat on the sill of our 6th floor apartment here in the Tenderloin district and softly crooned that tune all by myself. We were all instructed to video ourselves doing it and to submit it to the San Francisco Chronicle via dropbox, so I did and then I did.
This is my attempt at what humans call ‘singing,’ and it scared the cat so bad we found him later hiding behind a can of coffee in a neighbor’s apartment.
We were all told to make it acapella so that no one would get sued for the music part, and that way I can put it on my YouTube account too, and hopefully YouTube spiders won’t eat it for that same reason. I also submitted it to the dropbox thing but didn’t make the final cut, which I’m glad about now, because I’m posting the final cut below and there are a whole lot of people who don’t scare cats when they sing, although admittedly there are a couple who would probably singe a cat’s whiskers.
Regardless of all that, it’s a wonderful montage of San Franciscan’s, a few of whom I actually know, and HERE IT IS…
In that montage is a short clip from the San Francisco Opera, and I’m thinking that if you’re not entirely burned out on that song by now, you really need to see their full submission because it’s just one of the greatest things ever and it will certainly help you forget what I made you sit through earlier. This video was made by people who sing for a living, so they actually know what they’re doing…
By the way, all those melodic opera folk are out of work right now like me and everyone else, and they sure didn’t expect to be, like me and everyone else, so if you’d be kind enough to bump a few bucks to THE SAN FRANCISCO OPERA to help the arts stay afloat during this terrible time, just click on the link twenty words back.
Well, I had fun with the whole video thing, and singing to pigeons on the roof across the way, while knowing that at that same moment all those cool cats were singing that same cool song all across the city by the bay.
Although my own cool cat wasn’t too fond of it, he’s okay now, except he smells like coffee.
If you’d like to check out a recap of the whole thing, this DATEBOOK POST from The San Francisco Chronicle wraps it all up nicely.
A hat tip to the fabulous Audrey Cooper of The San Francisco Chronicle for posting some helpful info I’ve used here, yanked right off HER TWITTER.