'Godfather' singer Al Martino dies age 82

(AFP)

Al Martino, the chart-topping Italian-American crooner of ballads such as "Spanish Eyes" and "Volare" who played the wedding singer in "The Godfather," has died age 82, reports said Wednesday.

Martino's career spanned half a century, and at his peak in the 1950s and 1960s he was among the most recognizable pop stars on either side of the Atlantic.

He scored his first number one US hit in 1952, "Here in My Heart," a song which also became Britain's very first number one single.

He died Tuesday in a suburb of Philadelphia, the city where he was born and raised and eventually became a young bricklayer before running away from home and joining the US Navy at 15, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Jerry Blavat, a longtime friend and disc jockey who had dined with Martino on Monday night in Philadelphia, confirmed the death to the newspaper.

Martino "was a hero in South Philadelphia, with that magnificent voice of his," Blavat said.

"It's so crazy," he added. "Having dinner with him last night, dead now."

Born Alfred Cini in 1927, the romantic baritone had a string of hits including "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "Daddy's Little Girl."

He moonlighted in clubs and bars while working in his family's masonry business, but his singing career took off when he caught a break from a childhood friend, the opera star Mario Lanza, who had been due to record "Here in My Heart" but dropped his plans so that Martino's version could get airplay.

His biggest hit was 1965's "Spanish Eyes" -- described on his website as one of the 50 most-played songs worldwide -- but he reached millions of people in the 1970s and beyond by portraying washed up Frank Sinatra-esque singer Johnny Fontane in Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 epic "The Godfather."

Martino sang the Oscar-winning film's theme song, "Speak Softly Love," and reprised the Fontane role in "The Godfather: Part III" in 1990.

Martino continued to perform, particularly in Europe, into the new millennium. Earlier this year he acknowledged he was losing a connection with a new generation of web-savvy listeners but hoped they would still be able to find romance in music.

"I can't sell records in stores anymore; everything is online and I don't have access to younger audiences," The New York Times quoted him as saying.

"But 20 or 30 years from now, how are kids going to feel romance?"

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