Hundreds gathered atop Nob Hill yesterday to help music legend Tony Bennett celebrate his 90th birthday with the unveiling of an eight-foot tall statue of the crooner in front of the Fairmont Hotel. Bennett, looking quite spry, was greeted with a thunderous applause as he stepped out of the Fairmont, accompanied by his family and his pal, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.
Other dignitaries in attendance included current Mayor Ed Lee, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-California).
Though Bennett is actually a native of New York City, he became forever synonymous with the City by the Bay when his 1962 hit I Left My Heart In San Francisco became his signature tune.
"Using the voice to tell a story ..." sculptor Bruce Wolfe, who created the statue, told us. "A genius with cadence and phrasing. The pauses more important than the words sometimes. Selling the idea behind the words, that’s Tony. I can feel very lonely sitting, working on a clay portrait head in my studio. I know it’s not real but I feel it."
"Tony Bennett has branded San Francisco all over the world," former Mayor Brown said as he addressed the crowd.
"Isn't this a great day for the great City of San Francisco," said Mayor Lee, also speaking from the podium. "As we meet the challenges that face the city, we need to have some fun!"
After the applause died down, the mayor continued his speech. "What an honor it is to be here with an extraordinary artist," the mayor said. "Today he is 90 years young, the ambassador of San Francisco."
When Congresswoman Pelosi took to the stage, she reminded the audience of Bennett's varied accomplishments as a humanitarian. "Did you know that Tony Bennett fought in the Battle of the Bulge which helped to liberate the concentration camps? Did you know that he marched with Dr. King in Selma Alabama in 1965?"
Pelosi also noted Bennett's work with Voices Against Violence and the fact that the United Nations declared him a citizen of the world. "This is a man of excellence, of creativity," she said. "He has sung for 11 presidents. Soon he will sing for a woman president."
The crowd cheered.
As the moment of the unveiling drew closer, the San Francisco Boy's Chorus and the San Francisco Girl's Chorus, accompanied by the San Francisco Jazz Combo, performed a lovely rendition of I Left My Heart in San Francisco. Mr. Bennett stood for them and smiled.
There was a hush among the crowd as the moment of the unveiling came. As the veil was lifted, everyone jumped to their feet and cheered.
For Noe Valley resident Patrice Sandoval, a native San Franciscan, attending the unveiling was profoundly personal. "My mom was born and raised in North Beach," Sandoval told us. "She grew up with this music and she instilled a love for it in all of us."
Sandoval shared that both she and her mother had worked at the Fairmont. "There's a lot of history for me at the Fairmont and with Tony's music," she said. "They can kill the city with gentrification but they can't kill the music."
After the unveiling the Bennett family was served a birthday cake which was decorated with a giant heart. The audience sang 'Happy Birthday' to their favorite crooner.
"I can't get over what just happened," Bennett said as he thanked the crowd. "I'll never forget this day. Thank you very much."