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Folks I’ve Met Along the Way….

……in San Francisco
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay


Paul PaolicelliI didn’t just move to San Francisco; I dove into San Francisco. I’d been in love with that city since the first time I’d been there with my high school band playing in a series of community concerts. Later, in the army, I’d been in training at Ft. Ord, just after earning my degree in music I went up the ninety miles to the city every weekend I could get a pass. Hit all of the jazz clubs. For a wanna’ be musician, that city sang.  And then, after several years, I’d been offered a job there, a dream job in a way, in my journalism career having left music far behind. I was relishing my good fortune, dining with a date at one of the city’s fancy eateries. During the meal, I told my friend that one dream I’d always had was to see Tony Bennett in person in San Francisco.  As luck would have it, I’d just found out—too late—that he was playing the famous Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel that very evening. I was crestfallen for not having known about that gig in time to get tickets.

A few minutes later our waiter came over to the table and said, “you’re in. We called and found you tickets.” I was stunned. The waiter was a perfect stranger who had apparently overheard part of our conversation. I could have kissed him. And I left the biggest tip I’ve ever left. What a gift I’d been given and what a welcoming to that city by the bay. And I’d learn even better over time that San Francisco’s wait staff would always be remarkable.

The concert was one of the most magical, almost mystical, evenings in my life. Tony Bennett just yards away, accompanied by a marvelous trio, singing all of the many songs he’d made popular and all of the songs that the entire country loved. It still plays in memory. And it was the very same room where he’d first introduced his most popular hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1961.

Then, at work a few days later, I was told that Bennett had agreed to an interview and was asked to do it. I was walking in a dream. I’d only been in the city a few weeks but my boss and I were old friends and he knew of my musical background and said I’d be best prepared to talk music with him. (My real job was producing documentaries and long form reports on hard hitting topics, this came totally out of the blue.) I jumped at the chance, met with the crew and we decided to make the interview very special, we were going to do it while riding a cable car. That, of course, required a ton of preparation, coordination and set up as well as getting Mr. Bennett to agree. The magic came again, it all came together, the crew figured out a temporary platform for the camera to shoot at an angle and to mike us as Bennett and I rode along and conversed.

It was the strangest interview I’d ever done. One of the things every journalist knows is that celebrity interviews are a piece of cake; all you have to do is to get them to talk about themselves and that’s something that most celebrities can do in their sleep. Just throw out a softball and let them hit it. “Tell me about your relationship with this city given the fact that you’ve sung it’s favorite song…” sort of stuff. Should have been good for minutes. I got mumbled responses. I’d ask a question about one topic and he responded with a different subject. I thought maybe he couldn’t hear me. I spoke up. Same sort of jumbled mumbles. I was quite frustrating. We managed to put something together for air that resembled an interview, but it was flat and quite puzzling for me.

Many years later, my friend and fellow writer David Evanier, wrote a biography on Bennett, “All the Things You Are.” It was a deep dive into Bennett’s life. I told David about my strange experience with his subject and the sense of frustration I’d felt. He asked when I’d done the interview. It turns out David had been in Venetian Room for the same concert that I’d attended. And he said that had been the absolutely worst period in Bennett’s life for addiction to cocaine and pharmaceuticals. That while he could perform flawlessly (and he did), his personal life had been in complete disarray during that period and the only thing that surprised him was that Bennett had agreed to the interview in the first place. That explained the mumbles, it hadn’t been my questions. Small relief.

But, thanks to David’s hard work and deep research I learned about Bennett’s early years as well.  And forgave that wandering long ago interview. His early years explain so much about a complicated and gifted artist.  For me, this is the most important part of Tony Bennett’s back story. He saw racism and indescribable horror as a very young man. He was 19 years old when his army unit liberated a concentration camp near Dachau. One can only imagine how those images seared into his mind and memory. And he was excoriated for having a black friend. I think there’s a haunting sense to his artistry, deep in his music, that reflects the 19-year-old seeing the horrors and inequities of the world first hand. And he had the conscience and integrity to stand up for civil rights, to march in Selma. And fight the demons of addiction, all of which is reflected, I believe, in the high degree of artistry he brought to every song. It was always more than the notes….

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About the Contributor
Paul Paolicelli
Paul Paolicelli, Contributing Writer
Paul Paolicelli is a featured writer for Cape Fear Voices. He writes the regular column, "Folks I've met along the way"

Comments (7)

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  • C

    Charles BinsSep 29, 2023 at 2:57 pm

    Paul, I certainly didn’t know much about Tony Bennett beyond his singing, so this was a refreshing inside look.

  • T

    Timothy O'ConnorSep 8, 2023 at 6:45 am

    Paul, thanks again for sharing your writing. What a great experience.

  • D

    Dale StreyleSep 7, 2023 at 2:10 pm

    Great story, we’ll told as always Paul! I had the honor of attending Tony’s final concert with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. I didn’t know it would be his final concert at the time. What. A talent!

  • J

    Joyce MahoneySep 7, 2023 at 1:39 pm

    Love Tony Bennett
    Saw him in person at a performance at
    The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in NY
    Again in Charlotte NC
    Thank you for article

  • R

    Ron GibbSep 7, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    Paul…you’re the best! What a treat just to meet Tony Bennett. Do you remember when we went into The Hungry I( Think) and saw Mel Torme.? Good times!

  • L

    Lynn Harasin JohnsonSep 7, 2023 at 11:33 am

    Beautiful and insightful. But you saying you just have to throw. Softball and celebrities will take it from there.
    Not Cher.
    For the first time in my career I wrote down 20 questions for her. I saw her latest movie, read every article I could find.
    The producer gave me 5 minutes for the interview. An eternity in tv news. She answered every question with only yes and no. In one minute she answered everything and I had no where else to go. It was awful. The next morning Cher was on Good Morning America with Joan Lunden. Cher was charming and gave long answers to her.

    • J

      Jeanne C ScownSep 7, 2023 at 4:14 pm

      I saw him at the Empire Room at the Palmer House in Chicago. As I was dancing with my date, I was harmonizing to one of his songs. He tapped my date on the shoulder and danced and held the microphone between us for the rest of the song. I was 18 or 19 at the time. He gave me such a story to tell, what a beautiful, giving, person of service he was!