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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tony Martin 1913-2012

The window is rapidly closing. We are losing the links to a golden era in American popular music. And last month, one of the final breaths of fresh air coming through that window ceased forever. On the evening of July 27, the legendary Tony Martin died of natural causes at the age of 98. He was the last of the major pre-World War II vocalists, having been a contemporary of Crosby and Sinatra (his career even predated Frank's by a couple of years). Though not among the most well-remembered in contemporary days due to a career stifled by the advent of rock n' roll, he was nevertheless an important figure, and his death is a turning point in the history of pop.

He was born Alvin Morris on Christmas Day 1913, the son of Hattie & Edward Clarence Morris. His family was of Eastern European Jewish stock, but like so many in those days, he changed his name upon arriving in Hollywood. But before that, he showed an aptitude for singing at an early age, participating in school glee clubs and forming his first band in high school. In college, he joined the orchestra of Tom Gerun, where he played in the reed section along with future bandleader Woody Herman.

But it would be in singing that Morris would find his calling, and his fame. Banking on his sizable vocal gift as well as his good looks, he took a shot at becoming a musical film star. Officially changing his name, he made one of his first appearances, a bit part in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic Follow the Fleet, in 1936. He was promptly signed to 20th Century Fox and later M-G-M, and went on to appear in a string of movie musical mainly during the 1930s but also the '40s and '50s as well. Notable on his screen resume are the Marx Brothers' The Big Store (1941) and the fantastic musical revue Till the Clouds Roll By (1946),

With Jack Haley (aka The Tin Man) in 1936's Pigskin Parade.
His first record label was Decca, which signed the 24-year-old singer in 1938 and paired him up with the Ray Noble orchestra. His earliest hits there included "The Moon of Manakoora" and "I Hadn't Anyone Till You". Martin stayed with Decca through 1942, also racking up major hits with "It's a Blue World" and perhaps his most signature tune, "To Each His Own". His recording career was interrupted with a stint serving in World War II, where entertained the troops for years, even joining Glenn Miller's band for a time.

Following the war, he signed on with then-independent Mercury Records, where he remained for two years--a time that included a re-recording of "To Each His Own" that proved even more successful than his original. The singer was on a high, and RCA Victor stepped in to offer him an even more lucrative contract, which he accepted. He remained there for the remainder of his recording career.

It was also in the late '40s that Martin met Cyd Charisse, the gorgeous musical ingenue who would become his second wife (Martin had been married previously to Alice Faye for four years). Martin and Charisse became one of Hollywood's most glamorous--and longest running--couples, remaining together for 60 years, until Charisse's passing in 2008. They had a son together, Tony Martin Jr., who passed away last year.

Martin's career peaked in the 1950s, with a two-year run on NBC with his own TV show. However, by the late 1950s, with rock n' roll changing the landscape of pop music, Martin was one of those left on the outside. He was unable to keep his career going at the level that some of his contemporaries would do in the succeeding decades, and experienced a major drop-off. His string of charted hits ended in 1957 with "Do I Love You", and so did his musical film career, with Let's Be Happy. He would be heard from only rarely in the years that followed.

Still, Martin did continue to tour and perform all through those later years, and most fans marveled at how his voice continued to hold up well into his senior years. Despite leaving the mainstream spotlight in his early 40s, Martin performed live well into his 90s. His last live performance occurred in 2008, and perhaps it was a combination of old age and the loss of his beloved wife that led him to finally call it quits after an astonishing 72-year career that included 45 charted hits and 32 motion pictures.

There are literally no more like him. From an era of popular music that pre-dated World War II and started just as the big bands were gripping the American consciousness, Tony Martin was the last of a vanishing breed. He would benefit in later years as the vocalist became pop music's central focus, and then saw his star fade as music once again moved on to much newer and different sounds. For fans of the Great American Songbook, he remained a legend among legends who was always fondly remembered. And he will be remembered still by all those who admired his sweet, smooth voice and the earlier time it represented.

He will be missed. Let's never forget the music.

I leave you with my own favorite Martin recording, which I once used as background to a video I made of my infant son... 

2 comments:

emma wallace said...

Beautiful, Brian. I loved him too - not only his voice but for being part of the musical version of Newman and Woodward. Romantic and classy- he will be missed.

B-Sol said...

Thank you so much for reading, Emma. His is a voice that needs to be remembered. And the Newman/Woodward comparison is a very apt one!

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