No matter how many different people sing a particular song, there are some songs that seem to be “owned” by one artist. Below is one such song sung by the performer with whom it has always been associated:
“I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” was arguably Tony Bennett’s signature song (though some might say it was, “Fly Me to the Moon”), but Bennet wasn’t whom the composers had in mind when they wrote the song.
Claramae Turner was.
An American operatic contralto, Claramae Turner was “hot stuff” in 1953 when “I Left My Heart….” was written. She performed in San Francisco and with the New York City Opera, sang on the radio, and in three years would appear in her only film, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel with Shirley Jones. She had been a long time friend of George Cory, the song’s musical composer (Douglass Cross wrote the lyrics), and after the writers showed her the song, she began singing it. She even
But the song still hadn’t made its way to Tony Bennett. At Turner’s suggestion, the song was pitched to Tennessee Ernie Ford, but he turned it down. It was only when Bennett’s longtime accompanist, Ralph Sharon (also friends with George Cory) brought the music along on a tour with Bennett that the latter finally put eyes on it. He sang the song for the first time in 1961 at the famous Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, and for the next twenty years, Bennett always sang the song when he performed at the Venetian Room.
Bennett recorded the song in 1962, and it became a hit. It not only won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1962, but earned Tony Bennett a Grammy Award for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. In 1984, the City and County of San Francisco named the song as one of its two official anthems, and in 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America included it on its list of the most historically significant Songs of the 20th Century.
Not bad for a song about homesickness.
Tony Bennett passed away today at the age of 96. He had continued to perform and record through 2021 despite having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Frank Sinatra had called him the greatest popular singer in the world (“For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business,” Sinatra said many times), and certainly his performances bridged generations; Bennett had sung duets with the likes of Judy Garland and Lady Gaga, was able to pack concert halls during the height of the British Invasion, and adapted to whatever musical era he was in. In fact, Bennett made history as one of the very artists to chart new albums in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and into the first three decades of the 21st century. His vocal clarity and the emotional openness with which he sang his songs exuded authenticity which earned him fans of all ages.
Today, the internet is filled with biographies and well deserved tributes to the legend, but we offer a hat tip to the little white dog who made Tony Bennett happy. As of 2017, it was a Maltese named, appropriately, “Happy,” and the dog even joined Bennett on stage at Ravinia in Chicago. In 2020, Bennett announced on his Facebook page the newest member of the family, “Buddy Benedetto,” a Maltese Shih Tzu mix adopted from the Humane Society of New York.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Bennett.
Top image generated by Dall-E