The heart of San Francisco

Tony Bennett doesn’t mind telling the story behind “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

“My music director Ralph Sharon found it in a clothes drawer,” he said on the phone recently, in a chat to promote his appearance Saturday at the Black & White Ball, San Francisco Symphony’s big fundraiser for Adventures in Music, its acclaimed music education program for elementary school children.

Sharon had brought the sheet music along on tour; they were in Little Rock, Ark., on their way to San Francisco, and he said, “Here’s a nice local song.”

They learned it, played it, and the bartender in Arkansas said, “I’m going to be the first one to buy that record.”

They did the number in their engagement at the Fairmont Hotel to nice effect, but “having no idea” about the impact it might have. When it came time to put it on vinyl, label executives stuck it on the B-side of a song called “Once Upon a Time,” again thinking it only had local appeal.

“Turns out they were wrong,” says Bennett. While it didn’t immediately top the charts, the song was noticed and recorded by other artists. After a few years, it became well-loved internationally as Bennett’s signature tune.

No, he doesn’t ever get tired of it: “I sing it differently every night,” he says.

At 83, Bennett is in perfect health and feels “very blessed” with his contented life.

He enjoys good Italian food all over the world (“We can’t help it; it’s the best”), and performs only occasionally (he’s got a few sold-out shows coming up at London’s Royal Albert Hall). He takes private planes to get to his gigs, and paints on a regular basis.

In his younger days, he went to fine art school in New York, and also studied music and theater with “the best teachers” thanks to the GI Bill after he served in World War II.

Musicians he came up in show business with mostly are gone — “there’s nobody left” — but among younger performers he admires are Michael Buble, and, of course, k.d. lang, with whom he’s performing this weekend. He says, “I love the way she sings.”

He also likes to read a lot, mentioning “The House That George Built” about the rise of the Great American Songbook in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s as his current selection.

Clearly it’s a topic about which the consummate artist and crowd-pleasing performer knows.

“The public’s been beautiful to me over the years,” he says, adding that he has no plans to retire. When it comes to differences between early days and recent times, his big lament is just one thing: “Now they play in stadiums. I play in concert halls. I don’t want to compete with football.”

2010 Black & White Ball

Where: War Memorial Performing Arts Center, Van Ness Avenue between Grove and McAllister streets, San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $200 for general pass; $325 includes pass and Tony Bennett and k.d. lang concert
Contact: (415) 864-6000;

Entertainment lineup
Davies Symphony Hall
Tony Bennett and k.d. lang, 8 to 9:15 p.m.

Opera House Lobby
Candela, 9 to 10:45 p.m.
Tiempo Libre, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Opera House Café
Foreverland, 9 to 10:15 p.m.
Papa Doo Run Run, 10:30 to 11:45 p.m.
Zepparella, Midnight to 1 a.m.

Veterans' Building Lobby
Wonderbread 5, 9 to 10:30 p.m.
Moonalice, 10:45 p.m. to midnight
Faith Evans, 12:15 to 12:45 a.m.

Van Ness Main Stage
DJ Solomon, 9 to 10:15 p.m.
Kool & The Gang, 10:30 to 11:45 p.m.
Midnight Surprise, midnight to 12:15 a.m.
DJ Solomon, 12:15 to 1 a.m.

Big Band Big Top
Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, 9 to 10:45 p.m.
Royal Crown Revue, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Grove Street
DJ Mei Lwun, 9 to 11 p.m.
DJ Sam Issac, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

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