(Pictured: San Francisco’s Tony Bennett statue.)
Last weekend, people in San Francisco and around the world were invited to join in a mass singing of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” It’s one of those songs everybody seems to know; it’s another of those songs I knew before I knew that I knew it, although I may not have played it on the radio until I got to the elevator-music station in the late 80s.
The song was written in 1953 by George Cory and Douglass Cross. The story goes (according to Wikipedia, so who the hell knows) that it was first performed by California-born opera singer Claramae Turner, and was offered to and turned down by Tennessee Ernie Ford. It eventually found its way to Bennett’s accompanist and musical director, Ralph Sharon. Bennett first sang it at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in December 1961. He recorded it in January 1962, and Columbia Records released it in February as the B-side of “Once Upon a Time.”
Imagine that single arriving at a radio station in San Francisco. Columbia may be plugging “Once Upon a Time,” but if you’re programming one of those stations, there’s no way you’re not at least listening to that B-side. San Francisco stations KYA and KEWB were the first stations to chart it, according to ARSA; they were on it by the end of March. The next two were CJAD in Montreal and KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, who were on it by the end of April.
“(I Left My Heart) In San Francisco,” as the title was punctuated on the 1962 Columbia single, didn’t make #1 in its namesake town, at least not on KYA or KEWB. It reached #3 as April turned to May, ranking behind “Stranger on the Shore” by Mr. Acker Bilk and “Twistin’ Matilda” by Jimmy Soul at both stations. At about the same time, the song bubbled under the Hot 100 for four weeks, reaching #108 in May.
KYA and KEWB dropped “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” from their surveys in June, even as it was picking up adds in small-but-steady numbers across the country. Those steady numbers enabled the song to crack the Hot 100 during the week of August 11, 1962, at #87. It broke into the Top 40 at #32 on September 29 and reached its chart peak, #19, during the week of October 20. In that same week, other legendary records above it on the chart included “Monster Mash,” “Sherry” by the Four Seasons and “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, “He’s a Rebel” and “Green Onions” and “Surfin’ Safari.”
After hitting #19, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” spent the next several weeks going down and then up and then down again: 27-24-22-27-38-25-50-46-57-63 and out, appearing for the final time on December 29, 1962. Its highest rank on a local chart was #2, at WOKY in Milwaukee, for the week of November 2, behind Gene Pitney’s “Only Love Can Break a Heart.” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” spent 21 weeks on the Hot 100 in all, 10 of those in the Top 40, plus those four on Bubbling Under. It was Bennett’s first entry on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, which was created in 1961 and changed its name to Middle Road Singles during the song’s summer-to-fall chart run, which topped out at #7.
In May 1963, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” won Record of the Year and Best Solo Male Performance at the Grammys, beating out records by Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., and Mel Tormé, among others. It became a mid-chart hit in the UK in 1965. San Francisco named it the city’s official song in 1969. It made the RIAA’s “Songs of the Century” list in 2001, and was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2018. Although Cory and Cross never wrote another hit, they didn’t need to; “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” made them rich. They won the Towering Song Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003; by that time, however, they were both long dead, tragically, Cory by suicide and Cross by alcoholism.
Tony Bennett is 93 years old now, and still singing. (He had to cancel a show here in Madison last summer for which The Mrs. and I had tickets, which remains a great disappointment.) On Saturday, he led the singalong of his signature song at the Fairmont Hotel, where he’s honored with a statue outside.
Next week, you’ll read about another famous song that made the National Recording Registry earlier this year.