A week before Christmas I was in San Francisco to interview Orrin Keepnews for the Wall Street Journal. While I was there, I stayed overnight at the Fairmont, which has to be the city's most stately and grand hotel. Perched high atop Nob Hill overlooking the city and bay, the Fairmont opened in 1907 and has been restored to its original grandeur. Of all the hotels I've checked into in the U.S., the Fairmont ranks at the very top in terms of service, attention to detail, concierge smarts and panoramic views. But for music fans, the hotel is famous for another reason.
The Fairmont's interior originally was designed as an enlarged Venetian palace, and the lobby's butterscotch marble columns and floors drive this motif home. Like all great American hotels of a certain vintage, this one housed a nightclub. Known as the Venetian Room, the opulent supper club opened in 1947 and was host to music royalty. Among the stars who played the space were Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole, Marlene Dietrich, Vic Damone, the Supremes and James Brown. The club ended its run in 1989, and today the room is used for parties and large affairs.
But perhaps the Venetian Room's most famous headliner was Tony Bennett, who sang I Left My Heart in San Francisco for the very first time from the club's stage. Here's Tony Bennett (with Will Friedwald) in The Good Life: The Autobiography of Tony Bennett...
"George Cory and Douglass Cross were an aspiring songwriting team living in New York in the mid-fifties... They met [my pianist] Ralph Sharon when he was playing around town, and they frequently gave him some of their songs, hoping he'd pass them along.
"One particular day Cory and Cross bumped into Ralph [pictured] on the street, and true to form handed him some more songs. Ralph promised he'd take a look, but our lives being as hectic as they were, he simply stuck them in a dresser drawer and forgot about them.
"We were home in New York for a brief stay in mid-1961. We would be heading to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and then moving on to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Ralph was packing, looking through his dresser for some shirts, when he saw the batch of songs that Cory and Cross had given him two years earlier. On top of the pile was a song called I Left My Heart in San Francisco, and Ralph took it along because that's where we were headed...
"I was happy to have a special song for my San Francisco show because I'd never performed in that town and had heard that if audiences didn't know you, they didn't warm up to you quickly. Ralph wrote up a great chart, and I sang it on opening night at the Fairmont Hotel. It really went over like gang-busters. It might have ended right there, but as fate would have it, local Columbia reps heard the song at rehearsal that afternoon and loved it... On January 23, 1962, I recorded San Francisco in one take."
So while I was staying at the Fairmont in December, I decided to wander down to the lobby and inquire about the old Venetian Room. Pointed in the right direction, I headed through the main restaurant and wound up in front of two white wooden doors. I gave a gentle pull. The door opened. Peering inside, I saw that the room was dark—except for faint daylight spilling through the large, draped windows and a hushed purple light illuminating the stage.
Stepping inside, I let the door close quietly behind me. Clearly, the room was in the middle of being transformed into private-party dining space. After walking the interior, I headed up the few steps to the compact stage. From there, I looked out on what Tony Bennett and so many others must have seen over the years. Quite a chilling moment.
The loveliness of Paris
Seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome
Is of another day
I've been terribly alone
And forgotten in Manhattan
I'm going home to my city by the bay.
I don't have much of a singing voice. But being the only one in the room, I had no fear or shame. I did notice, though, that the acoustics were fabulous. My voice—sour notes and all—echoed throughout the room and rushed back at me.
Leaving the stage, I felt both foolish and excited. Where did I get off? On the other hand, now Tony Bennett and I had something in common: We both had played the Venetian Room and we both sang his trademark song there—or at least part of it.
Heading for the door, I noticed that I had had an audience after all: There in the corner sat a bunch of carpentry tools parked under some canvas. Which made me laugh: I had received a sanding ovation.
JazzWax clip: Here's Tony Bennett singing I Left My Heart in San Francisco in 1963 on the Judy Garland Show...