Tony Bennett turns ninety this summer. While fans around the world will remember him for the song about San Francisco, the Central Valley played a small, yet significant role the singer’s career.
Elvis liked his style. Sinatra called him his favorite singer. It has been a remarkable career for the singer whose first records were made in the early 1950s.
Through the years, music formats changed. But Tony never really changed. Sticking to popular tunes better known as the Great American Songbook, he kept plugging along. Through good times and bad, he was around, “picking up the pieces” as he sings from an early hit, making music.
He was the first musical guest on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on October 1, 1962. He performed his newest single on that program. The tune, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, would become his signature song.
To me, the song is more than just a tribute to that “City by the Bay” as the song lyrics go. The song connects with the desire many of us have to go home. No matter where we end up in life, we’d like to think that home is always welcoming us back.
Tony once told an interviewer that U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War would see the Golden Gate Bridge upon their return from the service. Invariably, someone would break out in song singing I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
As my uncle served in Vietnam, I’d like to think he and his fellow returning soldiers did the same thing upon their return to the states.
My journey as a Tony Bennett fan began in the mid-1970s when he was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show.
Johnny Carson preferred to have pop music artists of the Tony Bennett/Steve Lawrence genre. I was a teenager preferring rock-and-roll, but I liked Carson.
So I figured if Johnny favored these artists, they must be good. I was a Tony Bennett fan long before it was fashionable.
I realize now that the 1970s was possibly the most trying years of his career. At times during that decade he was addicted to drugs, his long time record label Columbia dropped him, and he toiled away in less popular venues before smaller crowds.
I remember seeing a picture of him taken from that time at a Rochester, New York area restaurant. The owner saw me admiring the photograph in the early 1990s. He pointed to himself standing alongside Tony in that picture.
He told me the photo was taken after a performance in western New York. The man shared with me how he saw the singer again twenty-years later and asked Tony whether he remembered that particular performance.
Tony told him “I don’t remember much of what happened in the seventies."
The first Tony Bennett record I bought was a long-playing 33 RPM called Life is Beautiful on the obscure Improv label. The album was made in the seventies; I found it brand new in a clearance bin at a big box store. The songs were well done. The title song was written by Fred Astaire.
In the 1980s, Tony kept plugging along and my only connection to him was through his frequent appearances on the Carson show. Toward the end of the decade, he would turn to his son Danny to manage his career. That’s when the new Tony Bennett emerged.
Danny was able to restore his dad’s recording contract with Columbia. He booked his father with some younger acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
He also got his dad featured in an hour-long MTV episode of the Unplugged series. That appearance featured duets with K.D. Lang and Elvis Costello. The live concert CD release captured the excitement of that evening and is credited with moving Tony to a new fan base.
In May 1992, Tony appeared on the last week of the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Tony sang two songs. One was Johnny’s favorite, I’ll be Seeing You. The other was I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
And now to how the Central Valley played a small role in the legacy of Tony Bennett.
I saw Tony perform in Fresno in 2004. I recognized every song but one. That particular composition, All for You, he explained to the audience at the William Sayoran Theater, was a new song in which he tried his hand at writing lyrics. He performed it for the very first time on stage that night in Fresno. In his second autobiography Life is a Gift, he wrote of singing the song on stage that night in Fresno. “I was bowled over by their (the audience) reaction” he wrote. “They went crazy for it.”
The words for All for You were the only song lyrics he ever wrote.
I’d like to think I led the enthusiastic applause when he performed that song on that night. I know I was the most enthusiastic fan in the theater as he performed I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
I’ve already begun celebrating Tony’s ninetieth by playing his music daily. The music has endured, his interpretations continue to layer over the many songs in his catalog.
He is a class act. Happy Birthday Tony!
Steve Newvine lives in Merced