Our family left Ridgewood, N.J. for Walnut Creek, Ca., in 1961. The former had snow and woods to explore, the latter walnut tree orchards and dry rolling hills, a youngster’s paradise. We moved because my father accepted an opportunity to open a San Francisco office of a New York-based insurance company. Tony Bennett seemed like family we never met.
My grandfather immigrated from Sicily and lived from my earliest memories with my grandmother, in Queens, N.Y, Bennett’s birthplace. They raised three children, including my father, Anthony, who was almost always called Tony but also Sonny by relatives. They’re all now deceased. My mother, Elinore, who died in January at age 93, and my father were the only family members who packed up their young children and left the East Coast. I was age 6, my sister Marilyn age 9.
The same year my parents moved about 25 miles from San Francisco, Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at the Fairmont, the famous San Francisco hotel. It was an immediate anthem.
My father, usually in a Brooks Brothers suit, button-down-collared shirt, a diagonally striped tie and wingtip shoes, commuted by bus. He carried The Wall Street Journal and read it folded vertically, a gesture of courtesy to not infringe upon other passengers’ space.
On special occasions, my mother drove us to San Francisco to meet my father for lunch, sometimes for Dim Sum, before it was trendy, at the Hang Ah Team Room. It was magical, especially if the milestones of the trip, at least for me, were present.
The San Francisco Bay Bridge was often shrouded in fog. Approaching the freeway exit to the financial district the distinct aroma of the Hills Bros. Coffee plant in the Embarcadero provided the impetus for a lifelong pleasure.
Equally important was the music selections on KSFO 560 AM, once the most prominent station in the area. Its promo, sung by a men’s choir, was “The sound of the city, the sound that I heard in San Francisco.” Its genesis was in 1960. Of course, the music of the day was often Tony Bennett, his signature song, and other standards by icons of jazz, Dave Brubeck to Sarah Vaughan, Vince Guaraldi to Ella Fitzgerald.
We were often fortunate. Bennett’s command of lyrics would serenade us into San Francisco and on the return trip to the East Bay area. If we had taken a cable car as part of the visit, it was surreal when Bennett would declare “Where little cable cars climbed halfway to the stars.”
Bennett’s albums became part of our home musical storybook, played on a phonograph or listened to on a Sherwood receiver and bookshelf Acoustic Research speakers. My father almost always played jazz. My mother tolerated most of it but she appreciated Bennett’s craft and showmanship. My parents’ dinner parties included sing-alongs, the precursor to karaoke, recorded on reel-to-reel equipment.
It is impossible to not think of my upbringing when hearing Tony Bennett sing. It’s impossible to visit San Francisco and not think of my mother and father and relish in the memories of the fog, the aroma of coffee, my father, handsome in his suit and tie. A piece of my heart will always remain in San Francisco.
(Author’s note: Tony Bennett died July 21 at age 96. Among numerous tributes about the entertainer’s long career, I read only one mention of Bennett never driving. If true, it’s possible no one who didn’t drive has had as much influence on those of us who do.
Whether for decades on AM radio stations, on cassette tapes and CDs and on satellite radio jazz stations and Bluetooth devices, Bennett’s music has accompanied automobile occupants for more than 70 years. It will continue.)