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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Tony Bennett turned 80 this year, and on his latest CD, called “Duets: An American Classic,” he's joined by a procession of younger singers. But he does one song by himself, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Critic John McDonough was in the studio for that recording session, Bennett's first studio rerecording of his signature song in 44 years.

JOHN MCDONOUGH: It's a song that looms so large in the Tony Bennett canon it almost seems to resist revision. Producer Phil Ramone says he and the singer wrestled with how to handle a song so iconic that many other singers might just prefer to stay away from it.

Mr. PHIL RAMONE (Producer): When I first started talking to Tony, , you know, he said, what would be unusual? Peterson, Previn, Yo-Yo Ma. Something. Just don't go the way you normally would and don't go symphonic.

MCDONOUGH: So instead of going over the top, Bennett went under the radar. He opted for old-fashioned simplicity and trusted the song. Just himself, pianist Bill Charlap and a softly lit studio in Englewood, New Jersey.

Hey, Tony.

Mr. TONY BENNETT (Musician): Good morning. How you doing, buddy?

MCDONOUGH: Nice to see you.

Mr. BENNETT: Is Bill here yet?

MCDONOUGH: I haven't seen him yet. I'm assuming he should be here. He (unintelligible).

Mr. BENNETT: The rain.

MCDONOUGH: Yeah.

Bennett arrives like a Swiss train at the stroke of 11:00 a.m. Bill Charlap is delayed by the rain and a traffic backup. So Bennett relaxes.

Do you need anything? Water, juice -

Mr. BENNETT: No, I'm fine.

MCDONOUGH: Charlap comes in a little after 11:30. The two had rehearsed informally the day before everything has written.

(Soundbite of music)

MCDONOUGH: Ramone chats in the studio with colleagues as Charlap and Bennett quietly go to work. Nobody seems to be paying much attention just yet. There's a quiet murmur of background conversation as the two men warm up. Not on San Francisco, but some personal favorites.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BENNETT: (Singing)

MCDONOUGH: Nobody seems in any hurry so the songs just keep coming, each feeding the other like the art of good conversation. These men know a lot of good songs too, and there's nothing they enjoy more than singing and playing them.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BENNETT: (Singing) She likes the theatre, never comes late -

MCDONOUGH: If you think none of this has anything to do with the business at hand, you might be mistaken. After 15 or 20 minutes, as the last notes of “Lady is a Tramp” melts into the air, Bennett senses that the mood and the rapport are right. He is comfortable and ready to go.

Mr. BENNETT: All right.

MCDONOUGH: Yeah. I'd pay a lot of money to hear the two of you play and sing like this.

Mr. BENNETT: Thank you.

MCDONOUGH: If I had the money, but, you know, so -

(Soundbite of song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”)

Mr. BENNETT: (Singing) The loveliness of Paris, seems somehow sadly gay. The glory that was Rome is of another day, but I was terribly alone and forgotten in -

MCDONOUGH: From the first familiar notes, you recognize why this song would be difficult share with another singer.

(Soundbite of song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”)

Mr. BENNETT: (Singing) I left my heart in San Francisco -

MCDONOUGH: Bennett has been singing this song at every performance for 44 years. It's a signature song and like a signature, it's always the same yet always a little different.

(Soundbite of song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”)

Mr. BENNETT: (Singing) The loveliness of Paris, seems somehow sadly gay. The glory that was Rome is of another day -

MCDONOUGH: This is the original recording. In the summer of 1962, it never even charted in the top 10, but nearly 45 years later, Tony Bennett is still singing it and people are still listening. There's something about being old fashioned that just doesn't get old, especially when it's in the same key.

(Soundbite of song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”)

Mr. BENNETT: (Singing) I left my heart in San Francisco, high on a hill, it calls to me -

MCDONOUGH: For NPR News, this is John McDonough.

(Soundbite of song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”)

Mr. BENNETT: (Singing) To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars, the morning fog may chill the air, I don't care. 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.

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