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San Francisco's Official Songs

A Tale of Two Songs


San Francisco's Official Songs

Tony Bennett's singing about San Francisco's little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars made them forever famous.

SFCVB photo by Jerry Lee Hayes.

How many official songs does a city need? If it’s San Francisco, two.

San Francisco operates with just one official mayor (at a time, anyway, notwithstanding Willie Brown’s enduring title of “Da Mayor”) and one official flag, but when it comes to official tunes, it takes two. You probably know one of them: "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," popularized in the 1960s by crooner Tony Bennett.

"I Left My Heart in San Francisco" was named the city’s official song on Oct. 6, 1969. According to the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, composer George Cory and lyricist Douglass Cross were in town to witness the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ anointing their 1954 song.

Their tune and Rice-a-Roni have done more for our little cable cars than any PR campaign could.

In 1984, Supervisor Quentin Kopp led a movement to replace Bennett’s signature tune with the title song from the 1936 movie “San Francisco.” That song was written by Bronsilaw Kaper, Walter Jurman and Gus Kahn.

In the movie, Jeannette MacDonald plays a singer and Clark Gable, the owner of a gambling joint. After MacDonald belts out, “San Francisco, open your Golden Gate,” the room sways--the April 18, 1906 quake has hit.

Kopp and his supporters thought that "I Left My Heart" was outdated and mushy, while “San Francisco” had some solid history behind it. Then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, whose pet project was to revamp the cable cars before the opening of the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, was pushing the Bennett song. Bennett supported her project, and reportedly Feinstein wanted to ride with him on the first refurbished car.

At a broadcasted public hearing before the Board of Supervisors, pianists and singers performed the rival tunes, and people phoned in their votes, recalls then-deputy mayor Jim Lazarus. “San Francisco” won, though the Feinstein camp grumbled that the votes were stacked.

Feinstein then offered a compromise: why not TWO official songs for San Francisco?

Warren Hinckle, a crusty, hell-raising columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, criticized Feinstein for "waffling” and called Bennett "an over-the-hill Italian croaker." Feinstein accused Hinckle of a "brutal, personal attack" on Bennett that amounted to "vicious overkill.”

In May 1984, Kopp proposed an ordinance to make “San Francisco” the official song and to establish an “official ballad”--which would be “I Left My Heart.” The Board of Supervisors and Feinstein agreed.

And thus San Francisco became the city of two songs.

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