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Opinion: Remembering Tony Bennett

"I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars..."

Tony Bennett told me he'd scarcely seen a cable car before he recorded what became his signature song. The sheet music had been in the shirt-drawer of Ralph Sharon, Tony's longtime accompanist, when they were in Hot Springs, Ark., on a nightclub tour in 1961. Tony and Ralph noodled around at the piano after a show and tried a few bars of the song.

What Tony put across so powerfully from the first notes was the magic pull of San Francisco, the Golden City.

The Hot Springs bartender told them: "If you guys record that song, I'll buy the first copy."

Millions of copies had been sold by the time Tony Bennett left us yesterday, at the age of 96.

I had the blessing to do a book with Tony Bennett, as he turned 90 years old (in 2016). I'd sit beside him in his New York art studio — he was also an accomplished painter — and throw out names of people he'd known over eight decades in show business, since the time he was ten years and sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge, a gig he got because his uncle was a Queens ward heeler who said, "I got a nephew who sings."

"Duke Ellington!" I'd say, and Tony would tell me how the Duke would send him a dozen long-stemmed pink roses whenever he wanted to Tony to record a song with him.

"Sinatra?" I'd suggest and Tony would recall how when he once told Frank he was nervous before a show, he said, "It's good. It means you care. ... Work hard for them, and they'll cheer hard for you."

"Belafonte!" I'd say, and Tony told me about the time Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King asked him to do a show in 1965 for Civil Rights marchers along the Jefferson Davis Highway leading into Selma. Tony had to stand and sing on caskets borrowed from a local mortician because state troopers wouldn't let them use a theater or school for an integrated show.

"Ella Fitzgerald ... Judy Garland ... Nat King Cole!" I'd go on.

I heard Tony tell stories about lustrous names, shady producers, and celebs whose lives were heralded in gossip sheets. But he never put a villain into his memories. As he told me many times, "Everybody's got their own story."

Tony often mentioned his mother, Anna Suraci Benedetto, who sewed dresses. He'd sit beside her as a little boy in Queens, and saw how now and then she'd frown and set a piece of cloth aside.

"I only work on quality dresses ..." she'd tell him.

That's how Tony Bennett felt about his art. He turned down many invitations to record songs producers thought could be hits because Tony insisted on quality material, too: Ellington, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen.

Tony Bennett thought some of his most enduring work was on two albums he made with the jazz artist Bill Evans in the 1970s. The albums didn't do well at the time. They are considered timeless now. "Sometimes the world just needs to catch up with what you're doing," said Tony.

He leaves the world he loved and uplifted with a lifetime of music for us to catch up with.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.