San Francisco’s Two Official Songs Or, The Day Tony Bennett Hid In His Hotel
This story was made to be heard. If you are able, press the play button above to listen.
Today would have been the 97th birthday of one of America’s musical icons, Tony Bennet. He died on July 21, 2023 at his home in New York. And while he spent his final years on the east coast, his career and legacy live on here through his musical tribute.
Bennet’s song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is one of the two official songs of the city. That’s right, two official songs.
Jim Lazarus is now Senior Vice President for the San FranciscoChamber of Commerce and a board member for the San Francisco Museum & Historical Society, but he was Deputy Mayor in the eighties, when Dianne Feinstein served as the city’s top official. As Deputy Mayor (now called Chief of Staff), Lazarus says he kept track of “the controversies of the day,” ranging from questions about building the new baseball stadium downtown to what the city’s official song might be.
He was also intimately involved in planning for the 1984 Democratic Convention, which was coming to town. Mayor Feinstein wanted everything running like clockwork, including those little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars in the song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” popularized by Tony Bennett.
The cable cars weren’t going anywhere at that particular time, however, because of a year-and-a-half refurbishment that was to be completed in time for the big convention. According to news accounts of the day, the mayor wanted to inaugurate their return by taking the first ride with Tony Bennett – after he sang the song. What a great feel-good moment to also declare that song as San Francisco’s new Official Song. Right?
Maybe. Maybe not. This is San Francisco, city of diverse opinions, where history is revered. Many wanted to leave things as they were, including two influential newspaper columnists: Warren Hinkcle and Herb Caen. According to Lazarus, Hinckle called the song “sappy and out of date,” while Caen said both songs are “representative of a city that died long ago.” Ironically, both newspapermen favored an even more out-of-date entry, “San Francisco (Open Your Golden Gate),” from the 1936 movie, San Francisco, starring Jeannette MacDonald and Clark Gable.
Soon, County Supervisor Quentin Kopp took up the issue, and then as now, when the supervisors get in a tussle with the mayor, it makes news.
There’s no record of KALW’s involvement, but the winner of an alternative song contest on KPFA radio, in Berkeley, was by a punk band from Los Angeles. That song included the line: “Golden Gate and I’m ready to jump.”
City Hall hosted a competition of its own. Lazarus remembers “a live broadcast from the City Hall Rotunda with dueling pianists, and then having their listening audience call in and vote for their favorite song.” The Gay Men’s Chorus – all 150 of them – sang a version of the favored “San Francisco” at City Hall, as did The Royal Society Jazz Orchestra.
And Tony Bennett, guest of Mayor Feinstein, in town for the cable car reopening and certification of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” decided to stay in his hotel room rather than be booed by the biased crowd at City Hall. The controversy made international news. The Globe andMail in Toronto, Canada, reported that:
“When Mr. Bennett cancelled his expected appearance to sing the despised alternative song, [County Supervisor] Willie J. Kennedy rose to give an impromptu rendering. … It was the only applause “I Left My Heart” got all evening.”
“I Left My Heart” didn’t have a chance, Lazarus remembers, “because the thing was set up to — believe it or not — have people vote for the song from 55 years earlier.” And this presented a problem for the Deputy Mayor. Failure was not an option anyone liked to present to Dianne Feinstein, then, or now.
So Lazarus took a Biblical approach, invoking the wisdom of King Solomon.
“I suggested that maybe we ought to split the baby here, and maybe the approach was – two songs,” he says. One song could be the official song, and the other, the official ballad. “Of course, then,” he smiles, “the debate was, which song was going to be which.”
Mayor Feinstein and Supervisor Kopp had a rare agreement on this matter, and Kopp’s amendment to the Administrative Code was changed.
Be it resolved: The official song of the City and County of San Francisco is, and shall remain, “San Francisco.” Be it further resolved that henceforth: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” shall be the official ballad.
Lazarus admits this may sound like a waste of time, but he saw a greater good in this exercise. “Being able to come up with some compromise that restored a level of civility in City Hall helped on more important issues that might come down the path.”
And, he admits, “Having a competition over what should be the Official Song is one of those ‘only in San Francisco’ issues, that make us different than other places around the world.”
Everyone acknowledges that San Francisco is different. And we like it that way.
This story originally aired on Crosscurrents in February of 2011 and most recently aired on August 3, 2023 episode.