Al Martino: The Last of the Italian Troubadors

Backstage With Bruce Klauber

Singer Al Martino, probably the last of still-working, Italian troubadours with wide, hit-making appeal, died on October 13 at his home in suburban Philadelphia. Martino’s death, at the age of 82, was a shock to his family and friends, as there was no inkling of illness. Indeed, he was still working and sounding great and booked well into the next year.

(Note: Though he was not a frequent visitor to southwest Florida, he did appear at the Barbara B. Mann Arts Hall three years ago in tandem with accordian star Dick Contino.)

The only living, Italian-American singers of a similar, stylistic mode who could rival Martino in terms of numbers of records sold—Martino recorded chart-toppers from the early 1950s through the 1970s—are Jimmy Roselli, now 84; Jerry Vale, now 79; and Vic Damone, now 81. All are retired.

Born Alfred Cini in South Philadelphia, he first worked as bricklayer in his father’s masonry business. Young Al loved listening to singers like Perry Como, Al Jolson, and especially his neighborhood pal, Mario Lanza. After World War II service—he was wounded in the Iwo Jima invasion—he decided on a singing career, changed his name to Al Martino, moved to New York city, and in 1948, garnered a television appearance on tremendously influential “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” television show.

As a result of his first place win on the Godfrey show, he recorded a song entitled “Here in my Heart” for small Philadelphia record label. Despite the size of the record company, that single ultimately became a number one hit, first in England and then stateside. He signed with Capital Records in 1953. Although he had many hits through the years, including “I Love You Because,” "Volare," “Spanish Eyes” and the famed “Love Theme from the Godfather” (“Speak Softly Love”), Martino’s career floundered several times over the years, rumored to be a result of mob ties.

His first reported “problem,” repeated in the official Martino biography, was in the mid-1950s, when his contract was said to have been taken over by a “connected” manager, and the singer was ordered to pay $75,000 in “protection” money. Martino high-tailed it to England, where he appeared regularly, but he had next to no visibility in the states until 1958, when a friend intervened on Martino’s behalf. The friend, never named, must have been quite influential.

Then there was the controversy involving Martino’s role as singer Johnny Fontane in all three “Godfather” films. Writer Mario Puzo’s Johnny Fontane character was said to be loosely based on that of Frank Sinatra during the early 1950s period when Sinatra was down on his luck and needed a break. Old Blue Eyes got his break, according to the “Godfather” novel, with mob help. It was said that Sinatra was not thrilled with the character of Johnny Fontane. Other "insiders" claim the book and the films were among Sinatra's favorites.

Several non-acting singers, including Vic Damone, who was ready to take the role and actually secured Sinatra's blessing, were offered the Fontane role—even Sinatra himself was said to have been approached—but Martino ultimately got the part. It is not known for certain whether or not Martino went to Mr. S. for his "official sanction," but the singing career of Al Martino and the quality of the dates he was offered mysteriously suffered after the release of “The Godfather.” There aren’t many in showbiz still around who know exactly what happened. Those who do know have nothing to say.

Martino again turned to overseas audiences. Until the end, he was particularly beloved in England and Germany. His final date was on October 3, at a Staten Island tribute to his boyhood friend and inspiration, Mario Lanza.

Like Jerry Vale and Jimmy Roselli, Martino received some early, classical training, though Martino's voice could be termed the most "operatic." All three, in their heyday, had substantial lung power. More importantly, they were true stylists with a passion and, yes, schmaltz, that died with Frank Sinatra.

No matter what their ethnic background, millions of listeners became misty-eyed listening to Martino sing "Here in my Heart" or Vale crooning "Al Di La" through the years. Perhaps those songs and those artists reminded all of us of a simpler and happier time.

Al Martino did, successfully and sincerely, for six decades.

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