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Al Martino: Singer who had Britain's first No 1 single and played Johnny Fontane in 'The Godfather'

There have been several impressive recording debuts but few, if any, have shown more confidence than 24-year-old Al Martino's 1952 performance of the romantic ballad, "Here In My Heart". Back then, a singer had to perform along with the orchestra and nothing could be changed afterwards. Martino soared to the top of his range for a thrilling top E, equalling anything his friend, Mario Lanza, had done.

As luck would have it, Capitol Records released the 78rpm single in the UK around the time that the New Musical Express was introducing record sales charts. It was at Number 1 on that very first chart on 15 November 1952, and indeed was so successful that it was the only chart-topper in that year. Though the charts are now so different, Martino's achievement mirrors today, where unknown artists can shoot to the top with the right publicity and the right record.

Like so many American singers of the time including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Tony Bennett, Al Martino came from a family of Italian immigrants. He was born Alfred Cini in South Philadelphia in October 1927. He worked in his father's masonry business and sang in social clubs. He told me in 2004 that he had had no singing lessons, "but the national pastime for Italians is singing. My whole family loved opera."

Lanza suggested a move to New York, where Cini signed with the little-known BBS Records. His recording debut was with "Here In My Heart", a new song which had been written for Lanza. "I figured that if Lanza did record it, I'd be out of business," he remarked, but the opera star left it alone. Cini took his grandfather's first name, became Al Martino, and the record was leased to Capitol Records, going on to top both the British and American charts.

A succession of hits followed "Here In My Heart", though none was as successful. They included "Take My Heart", "Rachel" and "Wanted" as well as the theme from the western film, The Man From Laramie (1955), which starred James Stewart.

Martino claimed that these hits only made somebody else rich. "My manager was forced to sell my contract to some underworld figures in New York City, and I had no idea where my money was going," he said. "There was some physical harm and so I decided to flee to Great Britain. That cloud lived over my head for seven years."

Taking a lead from Ray Charles and Nat "King" Cole's success with country songs, Martino lowered his voice and had easy-listening hits in the US with "I Love You Because", "Painted, Tainted Rose" and "I Love You More And More Every Day".

Martino felt, however, that Capitol Records could have done more to promote his records, but by 1964, the label had the Beatles and knew where best to place their promotional dollars. Martino stayed with them, and it says much for his ability that he managed to keep recording hit singles and make successful albums when the label was not giving him enough attention.

In 1964, he sang the title song for the film, Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, which starred Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. The following year, Martino heard a German instrumental by Bert Kaempfert which had been retitled "Moon Over Naples" for the American market. Martino commissioned an English lyric and this became one of his most enduring records, "Spanish Eyes", a US hit at the time and a UK one, on reissue, in 1973. Other hits followed with "Think I'll Go Somewhere And Cry Myself To Sleep", "Daddy's Little Girl" and "Mary In The Morning", but he was sorry that his friend and arranger Peter De Angelis, had not given him "Venus", which went instead to the teen idol, Frankie Avalon.

Martino was a popular cabaret performer and in 1972 he accepted the small but significant role of Johnny Fontane in The Godfather. Martino thought that Mario Puzo's creation paralleled his own life, but Sinatra believed that he was the model for the Fontane character. Martino had been cast by the producers, but the director, Francis Ford Coppola, was unsure and used him under duress. He never praised either his performance or his singing but he did apologise and hired him for The Godfather Part III in 1990. Martino sings "O Marenariello [I Have But One Heart]" in The Godfather, but he became known for his vocal version of the film's theme, "Speak Softly Love". This led to further successes including a rousing version of Eurovision favourite, "Volare", in 1975.

In 1992, Martino returned to the UK for concert appearances, and from then until his death he made regular appearances here. His voice was still in good shape – he attributed it to not smoking and not drinking hard liquor - and, at the Liverpool Empire in 2004, he commented that he would have to lie down after singing "Here In My Heart". Amid much laughter, a lady in the audience shouted out "Hang on, I'll join you!"

Although Martino knew that "Here In My Heart" had been a UK Number 1, he remarked, "I had no idea that I had the first Number 1 until somebody told me I had made The Guinness Book Of Records."

Spencer Leigh

Alfred Cini (Al Martino), singer: born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 7 October 1927; married (one son, two daughters); died Springfield, Pennsylvania 13 October 2009.