This song was written in 1954 by two then-unknown songwriters, George C. Cory, Jr. and Douglass Cross. Cory wrote the music and Cross wrote the lyrics. They pitched the song to Bennett's pianist and musical director, Ralph Sharon, who was looking for new material for Bennett to sing at the Fairmont Hotel. "We dug down to the bottom of our trunk and gave it to him," said Cross. Bennett performed it for the first time in 1962 at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco, and it quickly became his signature song.
According to Cross, the two songwriters originally titled the song "When I Return to San Francisco." That title didn't grab them, so they changed it to "When I Come Home." They didn't like that one, either. But the pair's third attempt was a charm, because that's when they gave the song its now-classic title. "And I always thought that one was too corny," added Cross.
Columbia Records released this as a single, and although it only reached the Top 20, it remained on the national charts for almost nine months. The I Left My Heart In San Francisco album reached the Top 5 and went gold, and the single won Bennett Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male. The song has sold more than 14 million records and one million copies of sheet music in the US, and has been a huge commercial success overseas as well.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) honored Cory and Cross with the Towering Song Award for writing the song and also gave Bennett the Towering Performance Award for his timeless vocal rendition. Said SHOF chairman Hal David: "Tony Bennett is a songwriter's singer, who has recorded outstanding and unforgettable interpretations of many pop songs which have become standards. He is one of the best examples of the true marriage of song and singer, and all of us at the Hall of Fame look forward to applauding his unique artistry."
Said Laurie Armstrong, vice president, public relations, San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau: "The song itself is a musical postcard from a place known as 'Everybody's favorite city.' Mr. Bennett's heartfelt performance delivers that postcard every time he sings it, whether it's heard in Paris, Prague or Phuket."
The son of a grocer and Italian-born immigrant, Tony Bennett was born as Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926, in the Astoria section of Queens. His boyhood idols included Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. Bennett reportedly sang to customers while waiting tables as a teenager. In a 1965 Life magazine interview, Frank Sinatra said of Bennett: "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when Iwatch him. He moves me. He's the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more."
Demonstrating the versatility of this song, the blues great John Lee Hooker recorded his own version that was released under the titles "Frisco" and "Frisco Blues." When Hooker spoke with Bruce Pollock in 1985, he said, "I love 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.' When I heard that song I couldn't help it. I said, I gotta do it as a blues. So I wrote 'Frisco.' I love Tony Bennett. I just love his voice. I want to meet him so bad. There are certain types of songs that fit my music just like that. I turn it around and it becomes mine."
The song was originally written for the opera singer Claramae Turner, who often used it as an encore, but she never got around to recording it. "My friend Mr. Bennett got hold of it and it became his song rather than mine," she told The Daily Mail. "I had sung it all over the United States in my concerts and it was very well known through my singing of it."
According to Tony Bennett's autobiography Just Getting Started, the song was originally given to the singer's pianist Ralph Sharon in 1954 but the music manuscript got mislaid, only to be rediscovered in 1961 at the bottom of a shirt drawer.
Fittingly, this is the last song Tony Bennett sang in concert. He used it to close out his show with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall on August 5, 2021, which he later said would be his last performance. Bennett, 95 years old at the time, revealed in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.