An emotive, Italian-American pop singer in the vein of Perry Como and Tony Bennett, Al Martino enjoyed a lengthy string of hit singles and albums for over 20 years, beginning with 1952's "Here in My Heart" and running through the early 1970s. He was also the first American performer to score a No. 1 hit on the British charts, an achievement which landed him in the record books, thanks to its popularity with record buyers. The influence of criminal elements took him out of the business at a crucial point, but his unflagging determination brought him back to the limelight in the 1960s, culminating with his signature hit, "Spanish Eyes" in 1965. In 1972, he received an unlikely career boost with his turn as a failed, Sinatra-esque singer in "The Godfather" and its subsequent sequels. An impressive body of work and an irrefutable talent helped to make Al Martino a vibrant reminder of the golden days of pop crooners and a popular concert draw right up until his death in 2009.
Born Alfred Cini in Philadelphia, PA on Oct. 7, 1927, he was the son of Italian immigrants who ran a masonry business. During his formative years, he dutifully worked alongside his brothers as a bricklayer, but found his true passion in singing. In the evenings after work, he began performing at local clubs, sharpening his already impressive vocal skills. However, like many men of that era, service in the United States Navy during World War II interrupted his aspirations. Even though he was only a teenager, he enlisted and was sent to the Pacific Theater. After being wounded in the invasion of Iwo Jima, he returned home and renewed his goal of becoming a professional singer. At the encouragement of childhood friend Mario Lanza, who had gone on to international stardom as an opera singer, he relocated to New York City in 1948, where, now billed as Al Martino (the surname was taken from his maternal grandfather), he began to work the club circuit. A turn singing "If" by his idol, Perry Como, on the popular radio program "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" yielded a first place win and a recording contract with the Philadelphia-based independent label, BBS.
He was an immediate success with his first single, a ballad called "Here in My Heart." Ironically, Lanza had also planned to release a version of the same song, but Martino begged him to reconsider, knowing that Lanza's take would overshadow his. His friend relented, and the single - released in November of 1952 - was a smash, rocketing to the top position on both the United States pop chart and the UK singles chart. It remained in that position on the latter chart for nine weeks, earning him not only enduring fame in that country, but a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the single with the longest consecutive run in that position, bested only by four other tracks in the half-century since its release. It also earned him a contract with Capitol, for which he release three additional singles - "Take My Heart," "Rachel" and "When You're Mine" - all of which reached the Top 40 in 1953.
Unfortunately, Martino's career was derailed almost as quickly as it had taken off. His contract with Capitol was forcibly taken over by a management team with connections to organized crime, and Martino was forced to pay $75,000 to the team in order to safeguard their investment. After paying a portion in order to protect his family, he fled to England, where his popularity afforded him steady work. He continued to record during this period, and while the songs were hits in Europe, he was virtually ignored in the United States. By the time he returned in 1958 after a family friend intervened on his behalf with the Philadelphia chapter of the Mob, he had returned to unknown status among music listeners. To make matters worse, rock 'n' roll had taken hold of the industry, leaving crooners like Martino largely passé. He signed with 20th Century Fox at the end of the 1950s, but was dropped after none of his singles broke the Top 40.
Martino rose to the challenge by financing his own LP, The Exciting Voice of Al Martino, which brought him back into the Capitol fold. Though the LP and its single, an updated take on "Here in My Heart," failed to make a dent on the charts, it brought the singer back into the public consciousness, and he wisely followed it with The Italian Voice of Al Martino, which featured him singing mostly in Italian, and which he promoted tirelessly on television variety programs. The gambit worked - Martino scored a Top Five pop hit with a 1963 cover of country and western performer Leon Payne's "I Love You Because." The tune, which featured a new and understated vocal performance by Martino, later hit the top of the easy listening charts, and the album on which it was featured - also called I Love You Because - went Top Ten.
For the next few years, Martino enjoyed a string of Top Five and Top Ten hits with records like "Painted, Tainted Rose," "Always Together," "Tears and Roses" and "We Could," among others. In 1965, Martino recorded "Spanish Eyes," a reworking of an instrumental number by German composer Bert Kaempfert called "Moon Over Naples." It broke the Top 20 on the pop charts, but became a massive easy listening hit with over a month at the top position on that list and widespread popularity across Europe. The song eventually became his signature tune and generated his third Top Ten album. Two more easy listening hits - "Think I'll Go Home and Cry Myself to Sleep" and "Wiederseh'n" followed in 1966, and two more - "Mary in the Morning" and "More Than The Eye Can See" - in 1967.
Martino's career began to wind down in the late 1960s, but a turn of events in an entirely different medium brought him back to fame in the early-1970s. His friend, singer Phyllis McGuire of the pop vocal group The McGuire Sisters, had learned that Paramount was adapting Mario Puzo's sprawling crime drama, "The Godfather" (1972) into a film. The book featured a character called Johnny Fontane - a pop singer based on Frank Sinatra who employs Mafia help to land a role in a major film that will revive his career - and McGuire encouraged him to try out for the role. He won the part, and his performance, as well as his version of the film's "Speak Softly Love" and reprisals of the role in "The Godfather Part II" (1974) and "The Godfather Part III" (1990) reinvigorated Martino in the public eye. In fact, outside of the "horse head in the bed" scene, Marlon Brando smacking the singer and berating him to "act like a man!" became one of the film's most iconic moments.
In 1975, he scored another Top 20 hit with "To the Door to the Sun," an English-language version of an Italian-language number, and 1976, he scored a European chart hit with a disco version of "Volare." His final easy listening hit came two years later with 1978's "The Next Hundred Years," after which Martino settled into a steady if low-key career playing to loyal fans in clubs and casinos. In 1993, he recorded an album with German pop producer Dieter Bohlen, which reached the Top 100 on the German singles chart; a final album, Style, followed in 2000. He also made one last film appearance in the short "Cutout" (2006), which cast him, appropriately enough, as an aging pop singer. The project was featured at numerous film festivals around the world. Into his 80s, the singer continued to book concert tours and record, so it came as a bit of a shock to many when on Oct. 13, 2009, Martino died at his childhood home in Springfield, PA, just six days after his 82nd birthday. His loss, as well as his numerous contributions to popular music around the world - to say nothing of his iconic cinematic contribution to "The Godfather" franchise - received heartfelt tributes from around the world in the wake of his passing.