When I read that Al Martino had died recently, a number of thoughts went through my mind. Like a lot of people, I thought about his appearances in the Godfather movies — not a lot of screen time, but memorable nonetheless. He played a mob-connected singer named Johnny Fontane, a character rumored to have been based on Frank Sinatra. (Ironically enough, Martino reportedly had his own gangster problem — but as a victim. More later about that.)
A couple of years back, I wrote something I called The Quintessential Italian Crooner. As the title suggests, it was a discussion of Italian-American singers and their place in the hierarchy of croonerhood. Unfortunately I placed Al Martino in the second tier of singers, along with Jerry Vale and Vic Damone. To my surprise, the piece spurred a comment from his daughter, who very nicely but firmly advised that he deserved a little more respect. For one thing he was still actively touring and performing for appreciative audiences, unlike most of his contemporaries. She was right — Al Martino deserved tons more respect than I’d given him.
Born in Philadelphia in 1927 as Alfred Cini, a second generation Italian whose immigrant parents operated a masonry business, he grew up more interested in music than he was in bricks. He was especially inspired by his neighborhood friend, Mario Lanza (Alfredo Cocozza), who had hit it big as an opera singer. Adopting the name Al Martino from his grandfather, he began to work toward a singing career of his own.
With a little help from Lanza and a boost from Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts program, Martino was able to secure a recording contract. In 1952 it led to his break-out debut hit, “Here Is My Heart,” a song that Lanza had also planned to record but turned down so that his friend Al would have it all to himself. The record hit the top in both the U.S. and the U.K. and led to a bigger recording contract with several more hits soon coming along.
Unfortunately, it’s said to have also led to some unwanted attention from organized crime bosses, who wanted a piece of the action. Martino and his family were forced to move to England, where he spent the next few years becoming one of Europe’s most popular singers. By the end of the decade he was able to safely return to the U.S. but by then his career had cooled off a little. Martino just worked harder than ever and began to make some style changes too, and by the Sixties he was bigger than ever, with huge hits on songs like “I Love You Because,” “Mary In The Morning,” and his biggest, “Spanish Eyes.”
In the Seventies his career received another boost with his Godfather movie appearance, in which he crooned “I Have But One Love” to Don Corleone’s daughter on her wedding day. He also recorded an outstanding vocal of the film’s love theme, “Speak Softly Love,” but his success wasn’t just gangster-themed. Through the years he also had best-sellers with “Volare” and “The Next Hundred Years,” and for the rest of his life he continued to perform and record at every opportunity, leaving behind a rich legacy.