I guess my first impression of Tony Martin consisted of three words: "Please Go Away."
This was also my first impression of Allan Jones and Kenny Baker, who also got in the way of the Marx Brothers by stopping the movie for a song. The excuse in Martin's case, was he played a song-plugger in "The Big Store."
Martin's big number in the film was the infamous "Tenement Symphony" a grandly pretentious exercise in fake-Gershwin with florid and sappy lyrics (Sid Kuller, who later produced a peculiar album of adorable things kids say, set to music, was a culprit) about the harmonious melting pot that was "the tenements." This was specifically the Lower East Side ("the blacks" were in Harlem and "the PR's" in Spanish Harlem, both uptown).
Thanks to "The Big Store," generations who don't care a damn about big band singers, and couldn't name most of them, know who Tony Martin is. Some know him derisively while others are more loving, as reactions to this song range from loathing to "so bad it's good" laughter. Oddly, there wasn't a "melting pot" presence among customers in "The Big Store," except for Chico Marx, and some stereotypical over-populating Italian immigrants looking for bedding.
Despite being so memorable (mostly for all the wrong reasons), Tony's song was not released as a single until 1948. The earliest versions were 1941 (Larry Clinton) and 1944 (Anne Shelton and the transportation-challenged Dorothy Carless). It's last significant cover versions were in the 50's (Arthur Godfrey and Marion Marlowe) and 60's (Sammy Davis Jr.) From there, the musical tenement was pretty much condemned.
Readers under 30 (if there are any) should know that "The Cohens and the Kellys" is a reference to an ancient ethnic play and comedy film series, and that "Oh Marie" was an Italian song, thus hilarious when referenced to an Italian girl going out with a Jew:
Schubert wrote a symphony
Too bad he didn’t finish it
Gershwin took a chord in ‘G’
Proceeded to diminish it
I sought a variation on a theme that I thought pretty
And I found my inspiration on the east side of the city
The Cohens and the Kellys, The Campbells and Vermicellis
All form a part of my tenement symphony
The Cohen’s pianola, The Kellys and their victrola
All warm the heart of my tenement symphony
The Campbells come tumb’lin’ down the stairs! Hoodlya! Hoodlya! Hoodlya!
"Oh Marie, oh Marie" you’ll be late for your date with Izzy!
And from this confusion, I dreamed of a grand illusion
It’s my tenement symphony in four flats!
The kid on the first floor practicing the minuet.
The kid on the second floor yelling for the dinner that he didn't get.
The guy on the third floor waking from his slumber by the guy on the fourth floor practicing the rhumba!
The songs of the ghetto inspired the allegretto!
You'll find them in my tenement symphony!
The cry of the vendor made a lullaby sweet and tender!
I combined them in my tenement symphony!
The yelling of children will greet your ears: "Doolya doolya doolya!
Holy gee Holy gee! Gotta stop! There's a cop!"
Aaaaand from this confusion, I dreamed of a grand illusion. It's my tenement symphony in four flats!!
Speaking of ethnic diversity, few knew that Tony Martin was Jewish. He seemed to have more in common with Perry Como. He was born "Alvin Morris," and got an early break when he appeared in "Sing, Baby, Sing," with one of the era's best loved and now forgotten female vocalists, Alice Faye. Could anyone under 50 even name a hit song for either Tony or Alice?
They were married in 1937 and divorced in 1940. By then, Martin could be spotted in many a spotty "variety" movie…a mix of song, story, and maybe a laugh or two. "The Big Store" arrived in 1941, and after World War II, Tony returned home for hit singles (the best known, though maybe not in his version these days, is "To Each His Own"). He married Cyd Charisse in 1948, and in the mid-50's, made more movies that nobody wants to see these days, including "Here Come the Girls" and "Hit the Deck." Interest in Tony Martin…as well as Perry Como and most others of that type, waned in the 60's, and competition came from a new generation of easy-going singers, such as Allan Jones' son Jack Jones, and everyone's huckleberry friend, Andy Williams. To say nothing of Wayne Newton.
But Tony Martin's stuff still sold to old fans who were finally giving up their 78's for vinyl and CD, and the New York nightclub Feinstein's booked him in 2008, when he was in his 90's. He got as decent reviews as ex-Marx Brothers vocalist Kitty Carlisle did when she also turned up at that club for a few nights of "yes, I'm still alive, I can still sing, and look, I'm not wetting the floor."
Reviewing the show, NY Times cabaret reviewer Stephen Holden called Tony "his generation's Last Man Standing," a reference to late colleagues Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Russ Columbo…and a nice snub of Tony Bennett.
We'll let Holden finish up this obit. He made it look so easy, he was so easily overlooked. But, quoth The Times, despite the "laid-back persona...Mr. Martin rarely appeared out of black tie. Young swains of the 1950s preparing for their first prom could avail themselves of a popular tuxedo model called the Tony Martin.In a sense Mr. Martin represented an earlier fantasy, stemming from the 19th-century European operettas and musicals, that of the impossibly elegant troubadour warbling to equally elegant (and mythical) audiences at nightclubs and balls. In the 1940s Mr. Martin was to popular song what Fred Astaire was to dance."