By John Schauer
For 19 years, before I returned to my native Midwest to accept a job at Ravinia, I lived in San Francisco. Not long after I had started working as staff writer for San Francisco Opera in the early 1980s, the city’s board of supervisors were considering a weighty issue that consumed a lot of newspaper ink and TV news time. And what was this volatile subject? Not the city’s skyrocketing taxes, nor the soaring rents that were prompting calls for rent control, nor the need for infrastructure upgrades to prepare for earthquakes like the one that would strike in 1989. No, the vigorous debate that seemed to divide the entire city was the selection of an official song for San Francisco.
Passions ran high on this thorny subject, because San Francisco found itself in the enviable position of having two famous and popular possibilities to choose from. The first was the rousing title anthem of the 1936 Hollywood classic San Francisco, made famous when Jeanette MacDonald sang it to Clark Gable. The song had long been associated with the City by the Bay, and for over 45 years has been the finale of Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest-running musical revue in the world and a must-see attraction for tourists in the city’s North Beach area. Each of the numerous times I attended that show, it never failed to bring a lump to my throat.
The other contender, although written in 1953, didn’t really attract national attention until 1962, when it was recorded by Tony Bennett. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was actually the B-side of another song that failed to attract notice, and DJs flipped the disc to play what would become one of Bennett’s signature songs. A hit on the pop singles chart, it achieved “gold record” status and won Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. Bennett himself said of the song, “It changed my whole life.”
At that time, I wasn’t terribly familiar with Tony’s records, even though he was a household name. I associated him with other big-band, Vegas-style singers like Frank Sinatra, an artist whose mystique I never comprehended. I remember a colleague at Ravinia had a placard on his bulletin board with a picture of Sinatra and the caption, “It’s Frank’s world. The rest of us just live in it.” I didn’t agree.
But when Tony Bennett was rediscovered by a new generation on MTV’s Unplugged series, I started investigating his output, starting with a two-CD compilation of The Essential Tony Bennett. Each song became a revelation to me, from his first 1951 hit, “Because of You,” to his 1990s collaborations with the Ralph Sharon Trio. Ralph Sharon, by the way, was the one who introduced Tony to “I Left My Heart” while they were on tour heading to an appearance in the Venetian Room of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where Tony first sang the song in 1961. In 2016, a statue of Bennett was unveiled outside the Fairmont in honor of his 90th birthday.
In recent years, the Decades cable channel has been showing highlights from the legendary Ed Sullivan Show, and I’ve been struck by how many of Tony’s performances have been selected for this “best of” series. Seeing him over multiple decades, I was impressed by the richness of his voice, his subtlety of phrasing, the playful virility he projects, the robust energy that propels each song, his versatility—there’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that Tony Bennett is, in every respect, a better singer than Frank Sinatra ever was. There, I said it. Deal with it.
The year that I, as editor of Ravinia magazine, put him on the cover, I arranged for a production assistant to get a copy to him to autograph. It says something about the devotion of his fans that the autographed magazine was stolen before it got back to me. Undaunted, I tried again the following year; this time I was successful, and I cherish the kind note he wrote.
Meanwhile, back in 1980s San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors did something unheard of in today’s highly polarized society: it struck a compromise and named both songs as its official anthems.
Politicians, take note. ▪
John Schauer is a freelance writer who did leave his heart in San Francisco but, at the city’s current insane rent levels, could never afford to get it back.