Brooklyn Boro

Tony Bennett: Jeered and cheered by Brooklyn audiences

His "San Francisco" song was actually written by Brooklyn Heights songwriters

July 21, 2023 Raanan Geberer
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In the early- and mid-1950s, Tony Bennett, who died on Friday, was one of the top male singers in the U.S. Among his mega-hits were “Because of You,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “Blue Velvet,” “Because of You” and his version of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” which introduced the work of the famed country singer-songwriter to many Americans.

Although Bennett grew up in Queens, and later had both a California mansion and a high-priced apartment overlooking Central Park, it was inevitable that a star of his magnitude would interact with the borough of Brooklyn.

By the mid-1950s, the style of music that singers like Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como popularized was being overshadowed by a new type of music — rock and roll. And that led Bennett to the stage of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater in Downtown Brooklyn, now part of the LIU-Brooklyn campus. 

In the mid- and late 1950s, the number one rock-and-roll disc jockey in the metro New York area was Alan Freed, who produced shows at both the New York Paramount in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Paramount (and later, the nearby Brooklyn Fox) starring 10 or so acts on each bill. Freed was also a fan of Bennett, as he was of many non-rock artists, and played Bennett’s record “Close Your Eyes” (not to be confused with the doo-wop song with the same title) frequently on his show.

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Teens line up outside the Brooklyn Paramount Theater in 1952. Tony Bennett headlined a show at the Brooklyn Paramount four years later, in 1956. AP Photo/Anthony Camerano

For his first anniversary shows at the Brooklyn Paramount, from Sept. 8-15, 1956, Freed put Bennett on top of the bill, above genuine rock-and-roll acts like Chuck Berry, the Harptones and the Cardinals. According to some accounts, the teenage crowd booed Bennett because his wasn’t the type of music they’d come to hear.

The Pottsville (Pa.) Republican reported that Tony strained his voice trying to sing above the yelling of the audience. He was able to last for five shows, then was replaced on the bill by Al Hibbler, who was also a ballad singer but had roots in rhythm and blues.

Since Bennett had made his debut at the New York Paramount Theater in 1949, and both Paramounts had the same management, it’s likely that he had sung at the Brooklyn Paramount even before the Alan Freed show.

Of course, some young Brooklynites were more appreciative of Bennett than the Freed audience. An entry on Tony’s Facebook page from 2019 recalls him singing for high school students in Prospect Park, also in 1956. “A thrilling, memorable day,” recalled Amie JT, who was a Prospect Heights High School student back in ’56 and saw the impromptu concert.

At any rate, rock and roll became the best-selling music in the United States, and Bennett concentrated on making a series of best-selling, jazz-influenced albums (in those days, although singles were bought mainly by teenagers, adults bought the majority of albums). 

But there was one more Brooklyn connection to Tony Bennett’s work, and it had to do with his famous 1962 comeback song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The song was written not in the “city by the bay,” but in Brooklyn.

According to a 2016 Brooklyn Eagle article, the song was written in 1953 by songwriters George Cory and Douglass Cross, both of whom were living in Brooklyn Heights but were nostalgic for their native San Francisco. They pitched the song to several artists, but nothing clicked until they persuaded Bennett to include it in his nightclub act in late 1961. The overwhelming audience response led Bennett to record it, and the rest is history.

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