Life is a Gift: The Zen of Tony Bennett

…The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay

The glory that was Rome is of another day

I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan

I’m going home to my city by the Bay

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

The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care…


The soothing words of the song,  I Left my Heart in San Francisco, were drifting down the hall as I was heading toward my first Tony Bennett class at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. The class started in the chill of winter, right after the new year of 2016 had arrived.  Jill, the office administrator, had the audio-visual equipment set-up for me so that I would hear this song as I entered my classroom. Previously, she had sent me a roster of the attendees. Thirty-eight were registered in a room that had about thirty-five chairs set up for them. This was the first time in the four years at LLI that I had hoped that at least a few students wouldn’t show up. I think that the overwhelming interest in this class was due to the popularity of the class I taught last semester: Music and Lyrics of Songs from the 1930’s and 1940’s. In that class, we had talked about and listened to the music of the greatest composers of the American Songbook, such ask Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Dorothy Fields, and Billie Holliday. Although Bennett was not singing professionally during that period, his music reflects the high standards of style, which many people call, the Renaissance period of American music.

Through Bennett’s sixty-five year career, he has produced dozens of recordings in the format of the 78 rpm, LP’s, cassette tapes, compact discs, and digital recordings. By August, he is expected to reach his 90th birthday, at the top of his game! His recording collaboration with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek, won the Grammy in 2014 for best Pop Vocal Album. In his career, he has won 19 Grammys, two Emmys, an MTV Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers).  With today’s rapidly changing and commercial industry, it is not likely that we will ever see another artist who will be able to sustain a successful career for as many years as Tony. Think about how many music trends have been popular since the early 1950’s when Bennett started recording: big bands, Bandstand, Country, Rhythm and Blues, The British Invasion, Folk, 80’s Synthetic, Heavy-Metal, Hip-Hop, Rap, etc. One thing that’s different about Tony’s music is that he has consistently maintained a dedication to high-quality productions. Also, unlike many performers, he has never changed his philosophy or his public image.

The man we know as Tony Bennett was born on August 3, 1926, and was named, Anthony Dominick Benedetto. His family lived in Astoria-Queens, New York. His father died at age ten, but he was raised with great care by his mother, a seamstress. Tony has written a book, called, Life is a Gift: The Zen of Tony Bennett that details his childhood, his musical training, his early influences and his long successful career in the music industry. His book, which is the subject of the seven-week class I will be teaching, is a partly a memoir, a history of American music, and a guidebook about Tony’s recipes for successful living. One of the first lessons that Bennett conveys is that his mother emphasized the importance of quality in everything that she did. Bennett recalls that, though they were poor, his mother would not accept any seamstress job unless she was certain she could do quality work on the item. Tony has used this same principal to guide his recording and performance of music. Unless Tony thought that a song was good enough to stand up as a classic for all times, he refused to sing  or record it. This philosophy has served him well, as his albums have sold over fifty million copies, and he has performed in virtually every major country. He has sung for eleven American Presidents and the United Nations has declared him as a Distinguished Citizens of the World.


I Left My Heart in San Francisco, and a few other of Bennett’s most popular were resounding on an audio-loop as my students, aged 50 to 80+ entered the class. This sing-out did never happened in my American Songbook class. One ecstatic student asked, “Is there any better way to start your day than to listen to mellow tones of Tony Bennett’s music? If there is, I don’t know about it. It looked like all the seats were filled at the start of class; we even had to set up a few extra folding chairs.  I introduced the book, Life is A Gift, discussed Tony’s early life, and introduced a few of his Zen sayings. He writes, “There is so much that we can regret…instead, I look forward to each day.”  Reflecting the philosophy of his mother he advises, “Make every move with love and care. Don’t settle for inferior work. If you produce something that is not your best, discard it.” One of the participants said, “That’s why I came to this class… it reminds me of the teachings that I grew up with. You seldom come across people who have a philosophy like that anymore.” Another of Tony’s Zen sayings is, “Try to learn something new every day to make yourself better or to help someone.” Several students discussed some new skills they were working on or some classes they were taking at LLI. One lady said she volunteered at an ESL center in a middle school. I saw several heads up moving up and down in affirmation of her choice. I was thankful that Tony reinforced the importance of working on self-improvement, as I have mentioned that in every class I have taught here. Although this idea seems like it is ordinary, it becomes incredible when it is spoken by a man who has already achieved every possible kind of acclaim, and will soon be ninety years old. I wonder whether Tony’s Zen philosophy lead him forward to a long successful career, or whether his long successful career led him to have such a positive philosophy. I guess it doesn’t really matter if one conclusion is more valid than the other. Tony helps to bring the message to senior that a strong purpose and positive view about life help can help to maintain them and keep them productive for many years.

We moved on to exploring and experiencing some of Tony’s classic music. Everyone had a favorite: The Good Life, The Shadow of Your Smile, The Best is Yet to Come, and several others. I talked about how he got into show business (through music and acting training he received from the G.I. Bill). Several students discussed how the G.I Bill helped them to go to college, learn a trade, or obtain a mortgage. Tony started as a singing- waiter in a nightclub. Patrons requested songs, and he had to run quickly back to the kitchen to look through a songbook. A few minutes later, he ran out with a tray of food and performed the song they requested. He said in his book that he knew that he wanted to be a singer very early in his life. If being a singing waiter was as far as he could go, he would be content with that job. After getting some breaks from performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, he got a recording contract with Columbia records. He had his first major hits, Rags to Riches, Because of You, and Blue Velvet in 1951. Through the magic of YouTube, I played a recording and showed some early photographs of Tony singing Because of You. I saw several people who had tears in their eyes and many clapped when the music stopped. One of the two married couples who attended the class together, said that they first met when that song was playing on the radio “all of the time.” The other couple said that “Because of You was our special song. We danced to it all of the time.” Next, I played Blue Velvet. Although several people had heard the song before, only a few had heard of the collaboration that Tony had recorded on his duets album with K.D. Lang. The YouTube video that we viewed showed the warm interaction between those two artists as they recorded the song live. One woman noted that Tony is so humble when he is working with other artists. “He works so hard to make other performers look good, instead of trying to take the credit for himself.”


Tony with K.D Lang. They sang together on What a Wonderful World and on their Duets Album.

When I played the song, I left My Heart in San Francisco again, the room was completely quiet. Some people doodled on the paper and markers, some closed their eyes, and others moved their lips quietly to the music: “The morning chill may fill the air, I don’t care.” Although he loves the city, Tony never lived in San Francisco. He has always lived in New York. In 1952, he was going to perform a concert at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, and his long-time piano player, Ralph Sharon gave him a new song which he had received from two previous bay-area composers. They had recently moved from San Francisco to New York and were missing the loveliness of their former city, the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and “the little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars.” Tony performed the song for several years but did not record it until 1962, when it won a Grammy for it for the Best Pop Vocal Performance. Today, it is known as his signature song.  ASCAP listed it as one of the most well-known songs in the world. San Francisco uses it as the city song. The Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel played the song every night from 1962 through 1982. The song lingers in the air as the students exit the classroom,singing this time…


My love waits there in San Francisco

Above the blue and windy sea

When I come home to you, San Francisco

Your golden sun will shine for me.

There’s little doubt that the golden sun has shined on Tony Bennett for almost ninety years. In the next LitChatte Blog: More of Tony’s early recording career, his influences, and more of the Zen of Bennett.

The Blog Moderator, Dr. Murray Ellison, is a proud lifelong learner. He received his Master of Arts Degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in December 2015. He had previously received Master’s and Doctorate Degrees in Education from Temple University and Virginia Tech. He lives with his wife of thirty-six years in North Chesterfield, Virginia. His three wonderful daughters live in Massachusetts, Los Angeles, and Florida. Also, Pictured in the Blog Photo is Mia, the family cat. Respond to this blog or

All of the photos in this LitChatte entry, except the one of Mia, are used with permissions granted through Wikipedia Commons.


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