I’ll never forget the night I was sound asleep in my San Francisco apartment when the phone rang and a friend of mine demanded that I leap out of bed and rush immediately to the Symphony.
I had just started work for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, at a job I thought would be temporary but, as it turned out, lasted 26 years and netted me a pension. We worked only until 4 p.m. in those early days (ah, the 80s!), and my new co-workers told me about their “tradition” of periodically heading out to the Cliff House bar after work to quaff a few on a Friday night. I happily agreed to go along, and that night they introduced me to the delightful but merciless beverage called the Long Island Iced Tea. This insidious assassin of a drink contains five different alcohols, with a little Coke thrown in for good measure. I certainly hadn’t been a teetotaler up to that point – far from it – but I had no idea what that drink was. The very first sip was absolutely delicious – it tastes, of course, like iced tea – so I downed a tall one and then ordered another, unaware that the copious amounts of hidden alcohol in that lovely amber cocktail could kill a horse. About halfway through the second one, I realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.
So I stopped drinking and left for home, probably on a bus, because I’m sure I wasn’t driving. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but of course the minute I got home I decided it was time for bed.
I was already slumbering soundly when my friend Kay called. She worked as a marketing person for the San Francisco Symphony and had two tickets for the Symphony that very same night. In about an hour. Insisting that I go with her, she wouldn’t take my protestations seriously. “Good God, Kay,” I groaned, “I’m already in bed! My contact lenses are being disinfected and I already have my retainer in! And I’m sure my hair by now is a rat’s nest. Plus I just drank the equivalent of four liters of alcohol and can’t feel my feet! Forget it.” But one of Kay’s gifts was the power of persuasion, and for some reason I acceded to her demands and dragged my sorry self wearily out of bed.
I hardly had time to get dressed, but I managed to pull on some nylons, the only dress I owned, the only shoes with heels I owned, and the only coat I owned, which was a London Fog raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thought I should try to look elegant.
Mind you, I was not a Symphony type of gal. In addition to rock and roll, I definitely loved Big Band and the great American crooners. But to a great extent I’m a cultural philistine, and I keep my distance from the refined arts. So I had never been to the Symphony or the Opera and had intended to keep things that way. Still, I had heard a few classical pieces and thought to myself, “Well, some of that stuff can be rousing and might get my adrenaline going. How bad can this be?”
I’ll tell you how bad. What I didn’t know until the music started was that I was in for an evening of ancient chamber music, performed by a string quartet. Four people with violins on a stage. The best way I can describe the entire night is that it went like this:
With an occasional:
Needless to say, it was neither rousing nor inspiring. It finally got to the point where, much to my amusement, I thought I heard the older gentleman next to me sawing logs. Then a loud snort came out of me and I realized, to my mortification, that I was the one who’d been snoring.
When Kay drove me home after the evening mercifully ended, I told her in no uncertain terms that she owed me BIG TIME. What I demanded in return was that she get us two tickets to see Tony Bennett when he appeared with the Symphony later that season. She thought I was joking. “Tony Bennett?? You’ve got to be kidding me. That old guy? What are you, a senior citizen?” But I would not back down. I loved the man, and she was going to take me to see him. She teased me about it for months and proclaimed my uncoolness to all of our friends, but I kept my resolve and won.
I had been a Tony Bennett fan for nearly my entire life. When we were kids, my mother kept a radio on top of the refrigerator, and it was on KABL night and day. Mom was first and foremost a Sinatra fan, but she certainly loved and appreciated all of the sophisticated adult (i.e., non-rock) music of the time. I absorbed all of it.
Sinatra, I thought, was an actor as much as a singer, and his style could practically conjure a feature film out of every song. Perhaps because of my age I wasn’t a fan of his woeful laments like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that he recorded when Ava Gardner was about to leave him. But I adored his big-band and swing tunes, Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra being an album I could listen to every day.
Tony Bennett, to me, was jazzier and less mercurial. He didn’t have Sinatra’s urban rakishness, but his voice was so good that flair was unnecessary. He could do ballads and he could do swing, with equal weight. He was never breezy. His voice had a hint of Italian huskiness to it, like a little bit of peppery seasoning on a tender filet.
Sinatra famously said Tony Bennett was “the best singer in the business.” Is there a greater endorsement?
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926. He studied music and painting in school but dropped out at the age of 16 because his family needed the financial help. During World War II he served on the front lines with the U.S. army infantry – an experience, by the way, that spurred him to become a lifelong pacifist. After the war, he decided to study singing and acting. Pearl Bailey discovered him in Greenwich Village, Bob Hope put him in his road show, and Columbia Records signed him in 1950. Lucky for us. Since then, he has sold more than 50 million records.
Tony’s life wasn’t without its problems. When music labels began demanding that singers record rock albums in the 1970s, he hated compromising his principles so much that he apparently would get sick before recording sessions. The rock records didn’t sell. His second marriage dissolved, his lack of business savvy brought him to near financial ruin, and he got involved with drugs. Fortunately, his son Danny helped him completely resurrect his career. He got Tony booked on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 and exposed him to a hip, younger crowd. The Unplugged album from that show won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Tony was hot again.
Tony Bennett is a gentle man, happy and grateful, with an artist’s sensibility and an abundance of class. He walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He’s an accomplished painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian. His paintings have been commissioned by the U.N. and he was named the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He is tirelessly involved with a host of charities. He and his wife founded Exploring the Arts (which promotes arts education) and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a high school dedicated to performing arts instruction. Right now he’s in the middle of a tour that runs at least through November and includes a show next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
On August 3, he turned 90 years old.
Most people don’t know that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written in 1953 by two gay World War II vets, George Cory and Douglass Cross. They lived in New York City after the war but strongly missed what George called “the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty [of San Francisco]. We never really took to New York.” They moved back to the Bay Area in the late sixties, and three years after Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 54, George took his own life. The coroner’s office reported that he was “despondent over failing health,” but I wonder about his broken heart.
After it was written, “I Left My Heart” languished until late 1961, when Tony was looking for a song to add to his repertoire while he was on tour. Not even realizing that the tune would be a hit, he sang it for the first time in December 1961 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where his tour culminated. He recorded it in January 1962 and it was released as the “B” side to “Once Upon a Time.” The rest is history. It won the Grammy award for Record of the Year, and Tony won for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, his first Grammy.
San Francisco adopted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song in 1969. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
On Friday, August 19, San Francisco organized a huge celebration for Tony by unveiling a statue of him in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The Giants game that night was dedicated to him as well. I had decided months ago to attend both events, and I was determined to follow through with the pledge, despite the fact that I was suffering from vertigo.
(Yes, I’ve been dealing with dizziness for about three months, on and off, and am not happy about it. It’s become clear that it has something to do with my ears – so I probably don’t have a brain tumor, which is always my initial assumption – and I’m going through the process of getting medical attention. But I’ve been living in a disoriented fog of dizziness, nausea, and general ennui on and off since May. It was so bad last week that I wasn’t able to work on my blog because I just couldn’t focus. I hated not posting something, but it also made me realize that there is no way I can come up with 52 good ideas a year anyway! So now I am reconciled to the fact that Monday Morning Rail won’t be published every single week. At least my misery has resulted in a revelation.)
Anyway, that Friday morning I found myself walking up Powell from Market Street towards the Fairmont. It may not have been the best choice of routes, because in that area Powell Street is so steep that you practically need climbing gear trying to summit it. I was huffing up the street at a pretty good clip, though, silently congratulating myself for being in such decent shape after not having exercised in many weeks because of the *&^%$# vertigo, when I looked to my left and a young woman and her three-year-old child went skittering past me up the hill like a couple of mountain goats.
I could probably write a 100,000-word love letter about San Francisco, and maybe I will someday. The subject, though, is probably much too broad and much too emotional for someone like me to adequately capture. I would undoubtedly lapse into clichés or drunken sentimentality. But let me just mention that the two hours I spent in front of the Fairmont were arresting. The fog, of course, was hanging over us, somewhat lightly, but enough to keep me cool in the almost constricting crowd. There were tourists, residents, babies, parents, old folks, and people of all colors. The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing melodiously and with grandeur. The San Francisco Chief of Protocol (I love that quaint designation) spoke, as did the mayor, and Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. Behind the blue birthday balloons – some of which were lurching and popping in the wind – the Fairmont’s procession of international flags lined its historic façade. I was thinking about the Fairmont and how it survived the 1906 earthquake, and how I loved the hotel’s tropically decorated Tonga Room and its thatch-covered floating stage and its exotic drinks, and how the Fairmont had been the site of our wedding reception and I had actually, truly, gasped when I first saw the view from the room. About then, a cable car stopped behind us and remained there for the ceremony, the conductor ringing its bells periodically with great spirit and joy.
Three very elderly women were standing behind me, and I could tell that they were native San Franciscans – probably Italians. They spoke with a classic San Francisco accent, and yes, there definitely is such a thing among the old-timers. My cousin Jerry, who was born in San Francisco, used to speak with a combination of Boston and New York accents – an articulation cultivated specifically by the Irish and Italian Catholics who lived out in the Mission District. Sure enough, when one of the speakers joked that the world is divided into people who are Italian and people who want to be Italian, the ladies cheered. I knew it! Anyway, these women were about 4-1/2 feet tall at best, all dressed to the nines. And they had that unselfconscious way of speaking their mind and not caring who is in earshot – common to the elderly, I think. “The papers said this ceremony was going to be on the Fairmont lawn,” one of them declared loudly. “There’s no lawn at the Fairmont. What a bunch of crap!” She was right about that. When Dianne Feinstein came out to speak, one of them sucked in her breath at what she must have considered a fashion faux pas. “Oh, my,” she hissed, “can you believe she’s all in red?”
The sun finally broke through the fog, with its usual good timing. Tony Bennett walked out to much applause and his huge statue was unveiled, depicting him with his head thrown back and arms raised upwards, singing with great heart, as he always does. The real Tony choked up and told everyone, “You have been so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.” I felt embarrassed to be fighting back tears myself, but I stole a glance at the young man beside me and he was sobbing!
That evening, Julie and I took the streetcar out to the ballpark for Tony Bennett Night. Tony didn’t sing, but he said a few words. The entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I had a crab sandwich on sourdough.
After every Giants home victory, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is piped over the public address system at the ballpark. While most people file out of the stadium, I always stick around to listen to the song. For those three minutes, I relish not only the victory but my great fortune to have spent a lifetime loving both Tony Bennett and San Francisco.
That night, the Giants won 8-1.
You know, something else sticks with me about the day. Mayor Lee made a point of saying that while the city is facing new problems that need to be resolved soon, “we also need to celebrate what is right and what is great about San Francisco.” To me, everything about that day was right and great.