It takes two: The story behind San Francisco's official songs
There are so many musical tributes to San Francisco, in fact, that it is perhaps the only city in the country, and maybe in the world, with not one, but two official songs. And musicality didn't have much to do with this decision, as Jim Lazarus explains to KALW's Steven Short in this segment of "Witness to History."
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STEVEN SHORT: It's fairly common for official entities such as countries, states and cities to designate items that they officially want to recognize – you know things like flags, birds, animals, plants and music. Nations have their anthems. States have their songs. Yes, “I Love You California” is our official state song. And sometimes cities have their own songs too. Which is the case with San Francisco.
JIM LAZARUS: Unofficially, prior to Tony Bennett and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” it was the theme song “San Francisco” – Jeanette MacDonald from the movie of the same name, from the 1930s with Clark Gable about the earthquake in 1906.
That's Jim Lazarus, he's currently the Senior Vice President for the Chamber of Commerce. But in the 1980s he was Deputy Mayor under Dianne Feinstein. As Deputy Mayor, Lazarus kept track of...
LAZARUS: Of the controversies of the day. Homeporting the U.S.S Missouri at Hunters Point. Building a new baseball stadium, that kind of thing. So I got those issues as well as what the official song might be.
Something else occupying his time then was planning for the 1984 Democratic National Convention to be held in San Francisco. Mayor Feinstein wanted everything running like clockwork, including those little cable cars which were being refurbished in time for the big convention. According to news accounts of the day, the Mayor wanted to ride the first cable car with Tony Bennett after he sang the song. And there was another reason Mayor Feinstein was pushing for “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to be the official song. Lazarus says it was because of our sisters.
LAZARUS: We probably have had 15, 20, 30 sister city relationships built up over the last 30 or 40 years. And when mayors go and visit, there are bands at events that strike up “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” because that's a worldwide song that everybody knows and everybody has the sheet music to it.
Not everyone however, thought it best represented our city. Influential people like columnists Herb Caen and Warren Henkel.
LAZARUS: Warren Henkel was a, kind of a bomb throwing gasoline on the fire bigger than life. Still around. But was a big columnist in the newspapers.
Henkel said that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”...
LAZARUS: Was sappy and out of date and we should really go back to the historical roots in that movie song “San Francisco.”
Local radio stations picked up on the controversy. And Herb Caen reported that the winner of one city's song contest was a punk band called Black Randy and the Metro Squad and they were from Los Angeles. The debate over San Francisco's official song ended up in front of the Board of Supervisors. As Lazarus recalls there was a legendary session of public comment including performing artists and…
LAZARUS: They did a live broadcast from the City Hall rotunda with the dueling pianists and then having their listening audience call in and vote for their favorite song.
The Royal Society Jazz Band and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus – all 150 members of them – sang a version of the favorite “San Francisco.” Meanwhile, as the story goes, Tony Bennett, guest of Mayor Feinstein, in town to defend “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” decided to stay in his hotel room rather than be booed by the thousands of traditionalists who were gathered at City Hall. It was an international scandal. A newspaper account in The Globe and Mail from Toronto in Ontario, Canada reported that,
LAZARUS: When Mr. Bennett cancelled his expected appearance to sing the despised alternative song Supervisor Willie J. Kennedy rose to give an impromptu rendering. It was the only applause "I Left My Heart" had all evening.
Jim Lazarus wasn't surprised.
LAZARUS: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” didn't have a chance because the thing was set up for – believe it or not – have people vote for the song from 55 years earlier.
Which was a problem for Deputy Mayor Lazarus. His boss was not going to get her Tony Bennett song.
LAZARUS: And failure wasn't an option you liked to present to Senator, or Mayor Feinstein, at the time. So I suggested that maybe we ought to split the baby here. And maybe the approach was two songs. We had an official song in “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Maybe we could have a song and a ballad. And Mayor Feinstein bought into that.
Of course, then the debate was which song was going to be which. And so when those negotiations were done, we designated those two songs. “San Francisco” as the official song, but the official ballad continues to be played when mayors travel became, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the official ballad for the city.
There were bigger issues. Bigger fish to fry than this one ultimately, and being able to come up with some compromise that restored a level of civility in City Hall helped on other, more important, issues that might come down the path. Having a competition over what should be the official song is one of those only in San Francisco stories, one of those only in San Francisco issues that really kind of make us different than other places around the world.
Which at best probably only have one official song.
Where little cable cars climb half-way to the stars, I'm Steven Short for Crosscurrents.
This story originally aired on December 9, 2009.