October 14, 2009: Al Martino has died at the age of 82. The singer’s death took place at his childhood home in Philadelphia. No word, yet, on the cause of death. The profile below was written in 2005.
“’We lost Sinatra, we lost Dean Martin, Al Martino. All the great old singers have gone now, and people miss them.’” Michael Bublé quoted in an online article in the Weekend Standard
Just one problem with Bublé’s comment – Al Martino, was anything but gone at that time!
In fact, the crooner, who started his career in 1952, was still on the road, still performing and booked well into 2006!
But his is a career filled with years in the spotlight and moments in the shadows. Martino, telling Rita Charleston of The Northeast Times, earlier this year, that he lives by the words of Sir Winston Churchill: “The measure of success is when you go from failure to failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm.”.
Here, now, a look at this man and his music.
South Philly Roots
Al Martino was born Alfred Cini, in Philadelphia, on October 7, 1927. His parents were Italian immigrants who ran a masonry business and young Al appeared destined to become a bricklayer, like his brothers.
But had bigger dreams, of becoming a singer, inspired by Al Jolson and Perry Como, and by another South Philadelphia Italian, then known as Alfredo Cocozza. When Freddie changed his name to Mario Lanza and found international stardom, Al decided to shoot for the stars.
After serving in the Navy in World War II (lying about his age-he was just 14), he took his mother’s maiden name of Martino, and began singing in local saloons around his home town.
Talent Scout Winner
Martino moved to New York City in 1948, where he roomed with Eddie Fisher and Guy Mitchell. Both had won first place on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show, so Martino figured he would give it a try. He sang the song “If”, then closely identified with Perry Como, and won first place.
It was enough to attract the attention of a small record label based in Philadelphia. BBS signed Martino and, in 1952, he recorded a ballad called “Here in My Heart” as his debut single. Trouble was, another great voice had been asked to record the song.. Mario Lanza. Martino telling Rita Charleston…
I made this great song… and I knew it was a winner. Well, Mario was already a big star in Hollywood, so when the people at RCA heard about my record, they called Mario and asked him to record the song for them. When I heard about it, I called Mario’s family, got his number in Hollywood and told him of my dilemma. I told him I thought the record would be a big hit but that if he recorded it too, I could kiss my record goodbye. Great guy that he was, he said that he wouldn’t record it and mine went on to become a big hit for me. I think that’s how it all began.
That song was a smash hit, selling more than a million copies, topping the charts in the U.S., even landing Martino a spot in the Guinness Book of Records, as the singer of the first-ever number one hit in the U.K. It also won Martino a contract with Capitol Records. Over the next year he released three more hit singles, “Take My Heart”, “Rachel” and “When You’re Mine”.
Career On Hold
And then, Martino seemed to hit the pause button, at least on his career in the U.S. He relocated to England, headlined at the London Palladium and continued to record in Britain, but he was cold as ice back home.
Just why he left the country isn’t clear. His own website glosses over the six year gap in his U.S. career, but legend has it that the Mafia had a hand in his apparent self-exile, according to a biography written by Steve Huey for AllMusic.com.
Huey says rumor has it that Martino’s contract was taken over by a management team with mob connections, and that Martino was ordered to pay a fee up front to guarantee their investment in him. Huey says Martino made a down payment to protect his family and then took off for England. And, that it took the intervention of a family friend with the Philadelphia mob boss, to bring Martino back to the states – an eerie foreshadowing of the role Martino later would play in The Godfather.
Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, authors of a recent book on Frank Sinatra, Sinatra : The Life, claim that Martino made a deal with underworld figures and that he fled the country because of debts to the mob.
Back in the U.S.A.
Whatever the reason, by 1958, Martino was back home and back in the recording studio, this time working for 20th Century Fox, but couldn’t duplicate his earlier success. 20th Century dropped him from the label, so Martino put up his own money to record The Exciting Voice of Al Martino. The album was released in 1962 by Capitol Records, with a new version of “Here in My Heart” released as a single. Both took off and Martino felt the momentum building again.
Martino followed this with The Italian Voice of Al Martino and then teamed up with arranger/conductor Belford Hendricks to record “I Love You Because”. That song hit number one on the Easy Listening charts and number three on Billboard’s charts in 1963.
Martino, telling John Chintala, in an interview on his official website:
What I had to do was make a transition from one style to another. I was always associated with the large-sounding type of voice interpretation of a song. Now, I had to change my style to fit a song I wanted to record which was a country song. It didn’t require as much intensity from me. Nat Cole gave me Belford Hendricks’ number. I went to his apartment and he coached me on this new style of singing.
A Country Flavor
At this point, Martino joined forces with Peter DeAngelis, recording pop songs with a country flavor, like “Painted, Tainted Rose” and “Living a Lie” in 1963, and “Always Together”, “I Love You More and More Every Day”, “Tears and Roses” and “We Could”. But the best was yet to come.
The Kaempfert Connection
In 1966, Bert Kaempfert was doing well on the charts with an instrumental he called “Moon Over Naples”. Martino tells John Chintala:
I got a hold of a copy of it and had lyrics written to it. The songwriters
wrote three different sets of lyrics for it and it was the third version that I approved. I knew as soon as I heard it that it was going to be a big hit because the melody was beautiful and the lyrics were just perfect.
The song was “Spanish Eyes” and it became Martino’s signature song. It was number one on the Easy Listening charts for four weeks, and the album Spanish Eyes gave Martino a gold record. The song has been covered by dozens of artists over the years including Elvis Presley and Engelbert Humperdinck.
That same year, Martino released “Think I’ll Go Home and Cry Myself to Sleep” and in 1967, he had two chart-topping hits with “Mary In the Morning” and “More Than the Eye Can See”, written by Bob Crewe.
Martino recorded a version of Paul Mauriat’s instrumental, “Love is Blue” in 1968 and covered “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in 1970, but, once again, his career was beginning to stutter-step.
An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
That’s when the movies beckoned. Martino’s friend, Phyllis McGuire told him that he would be perfect for the role of Johnny Fontane in the film version of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. Fontane is a fading singing star who asks for help from The Godfather, in landing a movie role to jumpstart his career. The character was supposedly based on Frank Sinatra and the way in which he got the part in From Here to Eternity that won him an Oscar.
But, it resonated with Martino. He says he knew he could play the role and lobbied hard for it, even asking then-head of Paramount Pictures, Bob Evans, to put in a word for him with director Francis Ford Coppola. It worked, and Martino played Fontane in The Godfather and again in The Godfather, III.
Martino also had success with the love theme from the movie, “Speak Softly Love”. Both film and song gave a much-needed boost to Martino’s career. In 1975 he recorded an English version of an Italian song “To the Door of the Sun (Alle Porte del Sole)” and had a hit with a disco version of the classic “volare”.
Ups and Downs
In 1982, his records no longer selling well, he and Capitol Records ended their association. Martino continued touring, performing in clubs, and casinos. He played the part of an underworld boss in a soap opera called “The City” in 1996. And he returned to the recording studio in 2000, releasing Style and Come Share the Wine over the past few years.
In October, Martino and five other artists with strong ties to South Philadelphia were honored with a mural on the wall of a cafe. The other five: Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Eddie Fisher, and Fabian Forte.
Martino and his wife, Judi, have been married for more than 30 years. They have a daughter, Alison, who is a producer for E!Entertainment Television.
As Long As He’s Singing
Martino shows few signs of slowing down, with concert dates scheduled thru February, 2006. What’s the secret to his longevity? He tells Rita Charleston:
Perseverance. I always say don’t let anybody shoot you down. And even though we live in youth-oriented society, there’s still room for singers like me. I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else..
Al Martino’s official website is the place to start, with news updates, a biography, the interview with John Chintala, a discography and a calendar that’s kept up to date.
The brief interview with Rita Charleston appeared in February, 2005, in The Northeast Times, when Martino was performing in Wilmington, Pennsylvania.
The site, Golden Music Memories of Yesteryear has several pages dedicated to Al Martino, including a scanned article from The Sun Newspaper of London and an active Fan Message Board. The author of the site is clearly a huge fan of Martino’s and is also very fond of animated gifs, so it can be a little difficult to find your way around, initially. Just click on Crooners at the bottom of the page and the information on Martino will turn up.
Additional sites referenced in researching this article include: