Tony Bennett’s Beloved Ballad Was Composed in Brooklyn Heights
By John Alexander
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
As summer nears its end and autumn winds will fill the air, it’s nice to dream of a place where warm sunny days won’t disappear. Back in the 1950s, two Brooklyn songwriters did just that. George Cory and Douglass Cross had moved east and were living in Brooklyn Heights in 1953 when they began to wax nostalgic about how much they missed the West Coast. That bout of musical melancholia gave birth to the iconic ballad “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
According to an article in the U.K. Daily Mail, Cory and Cross were amateur
writers who grew up in San Francisco but moved to New York following wartime military service. Cory wrote the music while playing the piano in bars; Cross, who worked in radio, wrote the lyrics. The article also claims that besides being songwriting partners, Cory and Cross were also lovers.
Cory was quoted as saying that the song was prompted by pure nostalgia for San Francisco. “We missed the warmth and the openness of the people and the beauty. We never really took to New York,” he said.
The song was originally written with different lyrics. It was first titled “When I Return to San Francisco” and then changed to “When I Come Home” almost a decade before it was recorded by Bennett. Claramae Turner, an opera singer, was the first to perform the song. It had also been pitched to recording artist Tennessee Ernie Ford, who turned it down.
Otherwise, few showed interested in the song, until the close of 1961, when Bennett and Ralph Sharon, his accompanist, were preparing to leave New York for a week-long engagement at The Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, making a brief stop in a nightclub in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
A feature in the San Francisco Weekly reported that during the stop in Hot Springs, “When Sharon went to pack his shirts, there was a stack of sheet music on the other side of the dresser drawer. On top was the San Francisco song that Cory and Cross had handed him on a Manhattan street two years before. On a whim, Sharon threw the music into the suitcase with his shirts.”
Late one night, Bennett and Sharon were having a nightcap at a bar in Hot Springs. There was a piano in the corner, and Sharon just happened to have a copy of the song in his pocket. They went over to the piano and Bennett sang the lyrics for the first time.
Bennett first performed the song for an audience on Dec. 28, his opening night at the Venetian Room. The response was overwhelming, and a Columbia Records rep came backstage and encouraged him to record it.
On Jan. 23, 1962, Bennett recorded the song and nailed it in one take. The track was released as the B-side of “Once Upon a Time” on Feb. 2, 1962. Eventually, “San Francisco” started getting all the airplay. Although the single never topped the charts (it only made it to No. 19), it did sell 2 million copies at the time.
Bennett’s album “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” reached No. 5 on the album charts and featured a cover photo of a fog-draped Golden Gate Bridge. Interestingly, while the fog is mentioned in the song’s lyrics, the bridge is not.
“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is now considered Bennett’s signature song. It has sold 14 million records and won Bennett his first Grammy Award for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male. It also won a Grammy for Record of the Year. Bennett, who turned 90 on Aug. 3, is still recording, performing, painting and writing books.
Cory and Cross never had another hit besides “San Francisco.” The couple made enough money from the song to leave Brooklyn and return to their “city by the bay.” Both Cory and Cross were inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and their song was adopted as an official anthem of the city.
So, while San Francisco may have been the city the two homesick songwriters were longing to return to, it was in Brooklyn Heights where the song was born.