Al Martino

This was originally published in October 2009 after Al Martino passed away at the age of 82.

Al Martino was one of the beloved “crooners” of the very early 1950s and then more so of the 1960s. Unfortunately he’s better known to many Americans these days for his role as “Johnny Fontane” in The Godfather movie series. Martino continued to perform and record right up to the time of his passing, so there is little question about his success or career longevity. Reflecting on Martino’s career and contribution to popular song, the most glaring question is — despite his success — “what might’ve been” had his career not been interrupted at its most promising moment.

Most of Al Martino’s legacy is that he was an extremely likable “easy listening” vocalist during the decade of the 1960s. Hits like “Spanish Eyes,” “I Love You More and More Every Day” and “Mary In The Morning” showcased his smooth, almost effortless baritone. Although he never enjoyed the top level fame of fellow Italian crooners Sinatra, Como, or Martin, there could be no doubt of his vocal talent. As with any truly great vocalist, Martino didn’t have to “belt out” the difficult notes; he sang them just as naturally and easily as any within his regular range. There is little doubt that had he desired and pursued it, Martino could’ve been an extremely successful opera singer. And although he put 37 songs into the Hot 100, in retrospect he might’ve been even more influential had he chosen the higher art form.

Of those 37 chart songs, only one went to the top spot on the pop side. That song, oddly enough, was his very first chart hit, “Here in My Heart” from 1953. As mentioned above, Martino is one of the definitive “easy listening” crooners of the 1960s. When the advent of rock and roll ultimately created the split in pop music that gave rise to the “easy listening” arena, Martino stepped in with four number one singles: “I Love You Because” in 1963, “Spanish Eyes” in 1966, plus “Mary In The Morning” and “More Than the Eye Can See” in 1967. Including these, Martino had more than a dozen top ten hits on the easy listening charts during the 1960s, and a dozen more that cracked the top twenty.

Reading the previous paragraph, you may be wondering what happened to Al Martino during the ten years between his first #1 in 1953, and his second in 1963. Unfortunately Mr. Martino never answered the question directly, so we can only report the rumors.

In 1953 Martino was hot off winning top prize on the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts television program, which was the 1950s version of American Idol in terms of popularity and importance in launching new singing stars. Along with the prize came a recording contract with a small Philadelphia record label, from which Martino’s first nationally-released record was “Here In My Heart.” The record rocketed to number one in both the USA and UK, and sold millions worldwide.

This stunning success caught the attention of Johnny Mercer, who signed Al to a deal at Capitol Records. His next three singles all charted nicely for Capitol. Although Martino had paid his dues in New York nightclubs for a few years, he was really an overnight sensation. Unfortunately he seemed to vanish just as quickly.

Martino supposedly moved to England, and it was explained that he was pursuing his fame there. He did become a regular performer at the London Palladium. Meanwhile his stock in America sank like a stone; he was all but forgotten until his return in the late 1950s.

Back in the USA Al began working the rounds of television programs and small theater tours to re-establish his career. His absence was never fully explained — just that he was working in England. Rumors — quite possibly grounded in truth — swirled that Martino’s contract was bought out by the Philadelphia mob, and that he fled to avoid the difficulties that were sure to ensue. Supposedly a “friend” negotiated his return. The story certainly adds to the Martino mystique, but unfortunately it doesn’t completely add up. Headlining the London Palladium wouldn’t be a very effective way to keep a low profile.

Although Martino struggled for a few years to regain his previous popularity, he eventually re-signed with Capitol records and began churning out hits. Continuing to work the variety shows, talk shows and nightclub circuit, Martino was rediscovered by the same generation that had made “Here In My Heart” successful some ten years earlier. The teenagers and twenty-somethings that had pushed the song to the top in 1953 were 1963’s homeowners with hi-fi sets. This demographic was a little too old to fully embrace the Beatles, but the “easy listening” sound was tailor-made for their record buying dollars. Artists like Johnny Mathis, Petula Clark, Herb Alpert, Steve Lawrence, and a young vocalist named Barbra Steisand were gaining fame in this new milieu for traditional pop. Capitol Records, which had the two best-selling acts of the day in The Beatles and The Beach Boys, possessed the marketing muscle to put Martino back on the charts. Capitol cranked out more than 20 Al Martino albums during the decade, each of which were profitable for the label.

The question remains: What could Al Martino have accomplished if he hadn’t “lost” six years in his prime? During his twenties — an age when most recording artists enjoy their greatest success — Martino was a non-entity in the USA. It seems likely that Martino would’ve enjoyed sales similar to the remarkable success Eddie Fisher enjoyed during that time. Add to that the fact that Al wasn’t faced with Eddie’s internal demons, it’s easy to imagine that he still would’ve enjoyed his easy listening success during the 1960s. And thus it isn’t a stretch to say that, were it not for his unfortunate hiatus during the prime of his career, Al Martino would probably rank among the Sinatras and Comos for lasting importance in the history of American Popular Song.