Jasper Cini was born here in Philadelphia on Friday, October 7, 1927. He started his working life as a bricklayer for his father's construction company. If he'd made bricklaying his career, chances are you would never have heard of him.
But Jasper (the name was an anglicization of his father's name, Gasparro) loved to sing. He practiced for hours every day, inspired by his idols, Al Jolson and Perry Como. The success of a family friend, Alfredo Cocozza, who'd recently changed his name to Mario Lanza, encouraged young Jasper Cini to follow his own dream.
Cini served with the U.S. Navy in World War II. He was wounded during the invasion of Iwo Jima. After the conflict, Cini adopted the stage name "Al Martino," on the suggestion from his friend Mario Lanza. "Martino" was the last name of Cini's maternal grandfather.
In 1948, after singing in Philadelphia-area nightclubs for a few years, Martino moved to New York City and continued working wherever he could find bookings.
His first big break came in 1952, when he won first prize on the then-hugely- popular TV show, "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts." He'd sung the Perry Como hit, "If."
The "Talent Scouts" success earned Martino a recording contract with a Philadelphia-based label, BBS. It was for BBS that he recorded what became his first of many hits, "Here In My Heart." RCA records had asked its artist, Mario Lanza, to record the song. But Martino pleaded with Lanza to not record it so his (Martino's) record had a chance. Lanza kindly agreed.
"Here In My Heart" was the number one song on U.S. pop music charts for 3 weeks in June of 1952. It earned Martino a gold record (signifying sales of more than a million copies). Later in 1952, the record became the first number one single on the newly-introduced UK Singles Chart. That distinction earned Al Martino a place in "The Guinness Book of World Records." "Here In My Heart" remained at number one in Great Britain for 9 weeks. Only five records have held the top spot longer.
The huge success of "Here In My Heart" led to a deal with a major label, Capitol Records. Martino's three singles for Capitol in 1953: "Take My Heart," "Rachel" and "When You're Mine," all reached the U.S. Top 40 charts.
Soon, though, Al Martino's success led to trouble. In 1952, while "Here In My Heart" was topping U.S. record charts, two thugs showed up at the home of Martino's manager, demanding to buy Martino's contract. Martino, in recounting that incident, said that when the mobsters threatened his manager's life, "He (the manager) gave them my contract for free."
Martino claimed that when he resisted the "arrangement," he was beaten by two men at The 500 Club in Atlantic City. The men forced Martino to sign a promissory note for a reputed $80,000; "the money we could've made off you."
Martino signed the note, then fled to Britain, where his popularity grew. He had 6 more hits on the British charts by the end of 1955. He headlined at the famed London Palladium. But during his "exile," his records received little airplay back home, in the United States.
In 1958, with the help of a family friend who smoothed things with the Mob, he was allowed to return to the U.S. But he had a tough time reestablishing himself. His efforts to do so were certainly not helped by the emergence of "rock and roll."
Martino was forced to pay for the recording of the first album he made since returning to the states. That album, "The Exciting Voice Of Al Martino" landed him back on the charts and led to a new contract with Capitol records.
In 1963, Martino recorded a song that had been recorded in 1950 by its writer, a country singer-songwriter named Leon Payne. With a splendid arrangement by Belford Hendricks, "I Love You Because" became Martino's biggest U.S. chart success. It reached number 3 on the "Billboard Hot 100" and number on the "Easy Listening" chart.
For the next 6 or 7 years, Martino worked with his friend Peter DeAngelis, another South Philadelphian. DeAngelis arranged and produced a string of hits for Martino, including "Mary In The Morning," "Painted, Tainted Rose," "I Love You More And More Every Day" and one of Martino's biggest hits, "Spanish Eyes."
During the 60s, Martino's capitol album sold well. All of them made the Billboard charts. In 1964, Martino sang the title tune in the film, "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte."
By the 70s, Martino's impressive run of chart success began to wane. Although many of his records made the Top 100 charts, none was near the top.
His 1976 disco version of "Volare " reached number one on the Italian and Flemish charts and ranked in the top 10 in many other European countries, including France, Spain and The Netherlands.
Despite an immensely popular recording career and an equally impressive success as a nightclub headliner all over the world, Al Martino will likely be remembered most vividly for his role as singer Johnny Fontaine in Francis Ford Coppola's immortal films, "The Godfather," (for which he also sang the title tune, "Speak Softly Love"), "The Godfather Part II" and "The Godfather Trilogy 1901-1980."
The character Johnny Fontane was, allegedly, based in part on Frank Sinatra. Martino often told friends about a call he'd received from Sinatra suggesting that he (Martino) NOT take the role. The threatening tone of the call, according to Martino, prompted a very brief and unambiguous reply.
In 2006, when he was 79, Martino acted in a short film named "Cutout." In it, he played an aging crooner, Sal Stevens. "Cutout" was featured in film festivals around the world. Al Martino sang in clubs until the end of his life.
He died in Springfield, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, October 13, 2009, just six days after his 82nd birthday. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Al Martino, the bricklayer-turned romantic singer, is survived by his wife Judi (whom he married in 1969) and their 3 children, Alison, Alfred and Alana. On Friday evening, November 16, 2012, Al Martino was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Bio written by Broadcast Pioneers member Allan Hotlen
© 2012, Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
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