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I Left My Heart In San Francisco: A Brief History

By Paulo Camacho

It’s a song that lives in the fabric of modern Americana, simply for the city that it commemorates. It’s been sung by a wide variety of artists in the decades of its existence, but it was made most famous by a crooner who turns 91 next week. It’s even been adapted by sports teams — particularly, by one in particular that has won a few championships in recent years — as an official anthem for their home stadium.

It’s a song about one “City By The Bay.”

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the signature song from legendary singer Tony Bennett, was first written in Brooklyn, New York, back in 1954. The song depicted two amateur writers from the West Coast who moved to New York, but were dreadfully nostalgic of their hometown of San Francisco. With that in mind, you could call it ironic that the San Francisco Giants would go on to use this song as their victory anthem — as one of the oldest baseball clubs in America, the Giants were formed in New York back in 1883, but migrated to the West Coast in 1957.

Furthermore, the songwriters — composer George Cory and lyricist Douglass Cross — did not have the well-known crooner in mind when they wrote the tune. In fact, the duo originally wrote the song for actress and opera singer Claramae Turner. While she originally sang the song as an encore after her live performances, she never got around to recording it.

The score eventually found its way to Bennett by way of Ralph Sharon, friend of the composers and Bennett’s then-accompanist. Sharon was looking, on behalf of Bennett, for a new ballad to sing at their gig with the Fairmont Hotel. The songwriting duo obliged by, as they tell it, digging the score out of “the bottom of [their] trunk.”

Bennett recorded the song, with its very familiar melodic leaps of a sixth on “San Francisco”, at CBS Studios in January of 1962. Funnily enough, the now-beloved song wasn’t even featured on its first album — it appeared as a B-Side track on the single “Once Upon A Time” in February of 1962. As it went, however, DJs ignored “Once Upon A Time” and paid more attention to the B-Side.

The rest is history — “I Left My Heart” was a hit on the pop charts for most of 1962, and won the top prizes for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance at the 1963 Grammy Awards. It became Bennett’s most well-known song, and is regarded as having resurrected his career. To date, Bennett’s rendition has sold over 14 million albums worldwide.

As the song gained worldwide popularity, the city it honored took notice. As mentioned before, the song became a staple at San Francisco Giants games, and was performed live by Bennett at special occasions featuring the Giants in action — particularly, Game 3 of the 2002 World Series between the Giants and Anaheim Angels; Game 1 of the 2010 World Series between the Giants and Texas Rangers; and the 2012 World Series Celebration Parade in front of City Hall on Halloween.

While the song is best known as a Tony Bennett staple, many other artists have had the privilege of adding it to their recording repertoire. Another legendary crooner, Frank Sinatra, recorded a similar take to the song around the same time as Bennett. Reportedly, however, Sinatra pulled his recording after hearing Bennett’s rendition.

Groundbreaking recording artist Julie London recorded her own version of “I Left My Heart” in 1963. Her sultry, smoky voice, combined with the “lounge singer” feel to the music, gave the song a new level of depth that previous artists were unable to unlock — almost a purely sexy, romantic feel, rather than a nostalgic one:

Legendary blues artist John Lee Hooker was inspired by Bennett’s ballad, and went on to compose his own version — “Frisco Blues” — in 1963. It is obviously a decidedly different take on the style — upbeat, to the stylings of the electric guitar and backup vocals by The Vandellas — Hooker’s version captured a whole other aspect of “The City” than Bennett’s. It was a “cool, cool” tribute to the song, and the man who sang it, that had a life, all its own:

Regardless of the numerous artists, past and present, who cover the song, it will forever be remembered as Tony Bennett’s greatest. In fact, in honor of the man who made it famous, a statue of Bennett was erected in front of the Fairmont Hotel in the days after his 90th birthday, on August 19, 2016. Incidentally, he turns 91 this week. So, here’s to the artist, the song, and that City By The Bay that made them all famous.

Your Golden Sun will shine upon them, for decades to come.

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