I’ve always enjoyed listening to jazzed-up versions of classical pieces, especially those as performed during the big band era. Even if purists might have dismissed the practice, it did offer the music of the ages to many people who would otherwise have shied away from what they called ‘long-hair’ music. (A term that has certainly had other meanings through the years.) Freddy Martin would be one of many bandleaders who brought the classics to everyone, most memorably with his version of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat Piano Concerto, aka “Tonight We Love.”
Martin formed his first band way back in the late 1920s while still in high school in Cleveland, and was pointed toward a musical career after graduation. He was a solid saxophonist and he led a pretty good band, but he needed to earn a living and found himself working as a salesman for a musical instrument company.
His break came when he tried to sell some instruments to established bandleader Guy Lombardo, who came to Cleveland on tour. Lombardo didn’t buy his sales pitch for new instruments, but he did agree to listen to Martin’s musical group. He liked what he heard and subsequently helped the band get its start.
Rising to prominence in the early 1930s, the Freddy Martin orchestra found a lot of success. The band was a popular draw on tour and had a lot of fans tuning in for radio broadcasts too. Best-selling records came one after another, including a big hit on Tchaikovsky’s piece, which was also released in a vocal version (clip). It was performed by one of the many singers that Martin employed through the years, including Elmer Feldkamp, Buddy Clark, Helen Ward, and eventually even a young crooner named Merv Griffin.
Martin continued to be active in music for many years, not only making records and leading his orchestra on tour, but also making appearances in movies and on TV. He was also a busy producer and musical director, but was probably happiest leading an orchestra. He spent the years leading up to his death in 1983 doing just that, in a standing engagement at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.