Monday, July 30, 2012
RIP: TONY MARTIN
Tony Martin, Debonair Pop Troubadour, Dies at 98
By FRANK J. PRIAL
Tony Martin, the debonair baritone whose career spanned some 80 years in films and nightclubs and on radio and television, died on Friday at his home in West Los Angeles. He was 98. .
His death was confirmed by business manager, Stan Schneider.
Mr. Martin’s long life in show business began in the late 1920s, when he formed his first band at Oakland Technical High School in California. He was still performing in nightclubs around the country well into the 21st century.
“Tony Martin may be his generation’s Last Man Standing,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times in January 2008. The occasion was a five-night engagement at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York, where Mr. Martin sang his hits from half a century earlier while dropping names of colleagues he had outlived, like Bing Crosby and Perry Como.
After a chorus or two of, say, “The Very Thought of You,” Mr. Martin would interject: “Ray Noble, lovely guy. I met him when I did the Palladium in London, and he asked me to sing that song.”
A few lines of “I Don’t Know Why” would recall Russ Columbo, who popularized it. “I was working with Woody Herman in Tom Gerun’s band in Oakland,” Mr. Martin would tell his audience, “when we heard that both Columbo and Bing Crosby were singing with Gus Arnheim’s band down in L.A. So we drove down to hear them.”
Mr. Martin spoke familiarly of Crosby and later singers. Crosby, who was almost 10 years older than he was, was the first of the popular male singers to develop the laid-back persona that Frank Sinatra would make his own. But 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.
His popularity later helped propel a successful performing partnership with his wife, the dancer and actress Cyd Charisse, in nightclubs and on television. Their marriage lasted 60 years, ending with Ms. Charisse’s death at 86 in June 2008.
Tony Martin was born Alvin Morris in San Francisco on Dec. 25, 1913; his family moved across the bay to Oakland soon after. His parents were well-off Jewish immigrants from Poland who wanted him to be a lawyer. He attended St. Mary’s, a Christian Brothers college in nearby Moraga, where he was in the class of 1934 for a time. “I left in 1932,” he once said, “after one of the brothers told me I was flunking everything and should stick to music.”
He headed for Hollywood, where a new name, his good looks and his voice soon had him working steadily, mostly in small parts, starting with that of a sailor in “Follow the Fleet” (1936), a song-and-dance feature starring Astaire and Rogers. Later that year he appeared in “Sing, Baby, Sing,” starring Alice Faye, whom he married in 1937. That marriage ended in divorce in 1940.
In 1941, in one of the high points of his screen career, he serenaded Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner as they floated down a staircase in a number staged by Busby Berkeley in MGM’s “Ziegfeld Girl.”
He eventually won larger roles in musicals like “Here Come the Girls” (1953) and “Hit the Deck” (1955). But his acting rarely drew critical praise, owing at least partly to the sort of films with which his career began — mostly the escapist fluff that audiences were demanding in those grim Depression days. In reviewing Mr. Martin in “Sing and Be Happy” in 1937 Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that the only depth in the film was to be found in the dimples of Mr. Martin and his female co-star.
Mr. Martin made his radio debut in the early 1930s on “Lucky Strike Hour.” He later became a regular on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” For a time in the 1950s he was the host of “The Tony Martin Show,” a 15-minute television variety series.
From 1938 to 1942 he recorded constantly, mostly for Decca. His hits included “Begin the Beguine,” “There’s No Tomorrow” (an adaptation of “O Sole Mio”) and “I Get Ideas,” taken from an Argentine tango and much criticized at the time for its supposed sexual innuendo.
In World War II Mr. Martin served briefly in the Navy then switched to the Army amid rumors that he had tried to buy a Navy commission. The rumors persisted after the war, even though Mr. Martin had served honorably in the Pacific, and several major labels refused to record him.
He signed instead with Mercury, then a small independent label based in Chicago. When one of his Mercury discs, “To Each His Own,” became a million seller, RCA Victor, one of the major labels, offered him a contract. He remained with RCA for the rest of his career.
Mr. Martin married Ms. Charisse on May 15, 1948, in a City Hall ceremony in Santa Barbara, Calif. They had a son, Tony Martin Jr., who died in 2011. Survivors include Ms. Charisse’s son from her first marriage, Nico Charisse, and two step-grandchildren.
In 1976 Mr. Martin and Ms. Charisse were co-authors, with Dick Kleiner, of “The Two of Us,” a book chronicling their lives together as performers and business partners.
In her last years Ms. Charisse appeared at most of Mr. Martin’s performances, usually sitting quietly in the audience. But she performed with him again in 1997, when they participated in “A Celebration of MGM Musicals” at Carnegie Hall, a show that blended vintage film clips from the 1940s and ’50s with reminiscences by the films’ stars. Mr. Martin later adapted this format for his club dates.
After a sequence from “Ziegfeld Girl,” Mr. Holden of The Times wrote: “Mr. Martin, now 84, came out and sang a beautifully nuanced, pitch-perfect ‘All the Things You Are.’ The voice, with its virile overtones, seemed only to have grown richer over the years, and the audience response was rhapsodic.”