Romantic crooner Tony Martin dies at 98

Published Jul 30, 2012 07:51pm

This Feb. 14, 1957 file photo shows singer Tony Martin at testimonial dinner given Jack Benny by the Frizes Club in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. -AP Photo

LOS ANGELES: Tony Martin, 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, has died. He was 98.    

Martin died of natural causes Friday evening at his West Los Angeles home, his friend and accountant Beverly Scott said Monday.

A peer of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, Martin sang full voice in a warm baritone that carried special appeal for his female audience. Among his hit recordings were ''I Get Ideas,'' ''To Each His Own,'' ''Begin the Beguine'' and ''There's No Tomorrow.''

''He's the ultimate crooner who outlasted all is contemporaries,'' musician and longtime friend Gabriel Guerrero said from his Oregon home. Martin recently sang to Guerrero over the telephone.

''He has truly remained the butterscotch baritone until he was 98,'' Guerrero added. Although he never became a full-fledged movie star, he was featured in 25 films, most of them made during the heyday of the Hollywood musicals. A husky 6 feet tall and dashingly handsome, he was often cast as the romantic lead.

He also married two movie musical superstars, Alice Faye and Cyd Charisse, and the latter union lasted 60 years, until her death in 2008.

Martin found his escape through music while growing up in San Francisco and Oakland amid a poor, close-knit Russian Jewish family, enduring taunts and slights from gentile classmates.

''I always sang,'' he wrote. ''I always played some instrument or other, real or imagined. ... At first, of course, my music was just for my own fun. I didn't recognize it right away as my passport away from poverty.''

Performing on radio led to his break into the film business. His first singing role came in the 1936 ''Sing Baby Sing,'' which starred future wife Faye and introduced the Ritz Brothers to the screen as a more frenetic version of the Marx Brothers.

As a contract player at Twentieth Century-Fox, Martin also appeared in ''Pigskin Parade'' (featuring young Judy Garland), ''Banjo on My Knee'' (Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea) ''Sing and Be Happy,'' ''You Can't Have Everything'' (Faye, Don Ameche) ''Ali Baba Goes to Town'' (comedian Eddie Cantor) and ''Sally, Irene and Mary.''

In 1940 he shifted to MGM and sang in such films as ''The Ziegfeld Girl'' (James Stewart, Lana Turner, Judy Garland), ''The Big Store'' (the Marx Brothers), ''Till the Clouds Roll By,'' ''Easy to Love'' (Esther Williams) and ''Deep in My Heart.''

In 1948, he produced and starred in ''Casbah,'' a well-received film musical version of ''Algiers'' with a fine score by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin. He made singing tours of Europe and had a yearly contract at London's Palladium.

Martin had fallen in love with Faye while at Fox, where she was one of the studio's biggest stars. Married in 1937, the newlyweds were considered one of Hollywood's handsomest couples. But the marriage eroded because of career conflicts and his distaste for becoming known as Mr. Alice Faye. They divorced after two years.

Martin met Charisse, then a rising dance star at MGM, when they were dinner partners at a party given by their mutual agent. Just returned from the war, Martin was busy greeting old friends and paid her little attention.

They didn't meet until a year later, when the persistent agent arranged another date. This time they clicked, and they married in 1948.

She had a son Nicky, born of her first marriage to dance director Nico Charisse. She gave birth to Tony Jr. in 1950.    Charisse became a star at MGM during the 1950s, dancing with Fred Astaire in ''The Band Wagon'' and ''Silk Stockings'' and Gene Kelly in ''Singin' in the Rain'' and ''Brigadoon.''

In later years, Martin and Charisee put out a 1976 double autobiography, ''The Two of Us,'' and often toured in a singing and dancing shows. He continued appearances into his 90s, his voice only slightly tarnished by time.

''His voice is more or less intact,'' a New York Times critic wrote when he appeared at a New York club in early 2008. ''Time has certainly taken its toll. He no longer belts. ... But the essential Tony Martin sound was still discernible.''

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