Tony Martin, dapper entertainer whose records sold millions in 1940s and ’50s, dies


Tony Martin on Valentine’s Day, 1957. The romantic singer who appeared in movie musicals from the 1930s to the 1950s and sustained a career in records, television and nightclubs from the Depression era into the 21st century, died July 27, 2012, at his West Los Angeles home. (AP/AP)
July 30, 2012

Tony Martin, an actor and singer whose virile crooning style made him one of the most popular recording artists of the 1940s and 1950s, died July 27 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 98.

The death was confirmed by his business manager, Stan Schneider.

Mr. Martin never had the sustained popularity of peers such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, but he achieved a remarkably long show business career. He briefly mounted a nightclub act at 95 and jokingly introduced a musical selection by telling his audience, “I first sang this song at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.”

Darkly handsome and dapper, Mr. Martin was one of the most glamorous actor-singers of his generation. He starred in lavish Hollywood musicals and augmented his allure by marrying singer Alice Faye and, later, dancer Cyd Charisse. He recorded with Ray Noble’s orchestra in the late 1930s, sang on the popular George Burns and Gracie Allen radio show, and hosted a live music program from 1954 to 1956 on NBC-TV.

In Hollywood movies, Mr. Martin was best remembered for his elaborate serenading style. He warbled “Tenement Symphony” in the Marx Brothers comedy “The Big Store” (1941), sang the ballad “It’s a Blue World” to Rita Hayworth in “Music in My Heart” (1940) and portrayed the dashing Gaylord Ravenal in the “Show Boat” segment from the Jerome Kern bio-pic “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946).

In the 1941 musical “Ziegfeld Girl,” Mr. Martin rendered “You Stepped Out of a Dream” to Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and a bevy of star-spangled extras cascading down white staircases to Busby Berkeley’s choreography.

He served in the Army Air Forces in an entertainment unit during World War II, then quickly picked up his career with light comedies and musicals such as “Two Tickets to Broadway” (1951) with Janet Leigh and “Easy to Love” (1953) starring Esther Williams.

To critics, Mr. Martin was a bit too clean-scrubbed in his portrayal of the hunted thief and smoldering lady killer Pepe Le Moko opposite Yvonne de Carlo in “Casbah” (1948).

As a recording artist, Mr. Martin compiled pop hits including “To Each His Own,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” the tango-infused “I Get Ideas,” “Begin the Beguine,” “I Hear a Rhapsody” and “La Vie en Rose.” One of his most popular songs, the 1950 recording “There’s No Tomorrow,” was based on the Neapolitan warhorse “O Sole Mio.”

Alvin Morris was born Dec. 25, 1913, to a Jewish family in San Francisco. He grew up with his mother and stepfather in Oakland, Calif. He dropped out of Saint Mary’s College of California in the early 1930s to focus on his musical interests. He later called his saxophone, which he learned at 10, his “passport away from poverty.”

He was playing sax and singing in the Tom Gerun orchestra when he drew the attention of movie scouts. The band could be heard on the radio in cities as far away as Los Angeles. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio chief Louis B. Mayer was listening in and was so taken with the young singer’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly” that he ordered a screen test.

Alvin Morris, rechristened Tony Martin, began appearing in bit roles in films such as the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical “Follow the Fleet” (1936). He earned one of his first singing parts in “Sing, Baby, Sing” (1936) with Alice Faye, whom he married the next year.

Their marriage ended in divorce. In 1948, he married Charisse, who starred in film musicals such as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “The Band Wagon” (1953) and “Silk Stockings” (1957).

With the decline of Hollywood musicals by the end of that decade, Mr. Martin returned to nightclub performing. He had a cabaret act for many years with Charisse, who died in 2008; they wrote a memoir together, “The Two of Us” (1976), with Dick Kleiner. A son from their marriage, Tony Martin Jr., died in 2011. Survivors include a stepson, Nico Charisse of San Luis Obispo, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

One blemish on Mr. Martin’s career concerned his wartime service. He had enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and was rumored to have attempted to bribe a superior with a $950 automobile to obtain an officer’s commission. Alhough he was not charged, Mr. Martin was separated from Navy service and inducted into the Army.

In later years, Mr. Martin offered reflections on show business and the various personalities who had crossed his path, including Judy Garland, Cole Porter and Elvis Presley.

“I want people to feel good after I sing,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991. “I don’t sing to people. I sing for them. I told that once to Elvis Presley. He bought it. After that Elvis sang not to but for the audience. A subtle difference.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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