Tony Martin - Actor and singer who had a string of hit records and married Cyd Charisse

 

A singer whose warm baritone and casual, debonair style made him one of the most popular crooners of his era, Tony Martin had a long career as a cabaret star, recording artist, and screen actor, noted particularly for his handsome appearance and seductive way with a ballad.

Songs with which he became identified included Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine", which he delivered in an intense crescendo of passion that regularly stopped the show during his nightclub performances, and three songs he introduced in movies: "The Tenement Symphony", which he sang in the Marx Brothers vehicle The Big Store (1941), "You Stepped Out of a Dream", with which he serenaded a bevy of beauties in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and the Oscar-nominated "For Every Man There's A Woman", from Casbah (1948). His romantic aura was enhanced by his marriages to two of Hollywood's most glamorous musical stars, Alice Faye and Cyd Charisse.

He was born Alvin Morris in San Francisco in 1912 to a poor but closely knit family of Russian-Jewish stock; music was his means of escape from poverty and anti-Semitic taunts at school. At St Mary's College in California he formed a jazz group with four other boys, then worked with several bands before forming Al Morris and his Orchestra. He was given a regular spot as singer on the Lucky Strike Hour on national radio and then RKO signed him for a spot as a sailor with one line of dialogue in the Astaire-Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (1936). He was allocated Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance", but it was given to Fred Astaire.

At RKO, Martin coined a new name, taking Antony from a magazine story, and Martin because Freddie Martin was his favourite band leader. He signed with 20th Century-Fox and was given a small role as a crooner in Sing, Baby, Sing (1936). He sang with Barbara Stanwyck in Banjo on my Knee (1936), and with Judy Garland in Pigskin Parade (1936), but his career at the studio made little progress. When he appeared in You Can't Have Everything (1937), he was still billed way down the cast list, and had one duet with Alice Faye, "Afraid to Dream". He married Faye the same year, and though columnists called them "a handsome couple" there were soon rumours of friction. Martin later said that he could not take being 'Mr Alice Faye'.

He was the romantic lead in Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), then starred with his wife in Sally, Irene and Mary (1938). Faye had much more screen time, plus the best tunes, and the pair never worked on the same movie again.

Martin had a rare non-singing role (and star billing) as a boxer in the "B" movie, Winner Take All (1939). It was his last film for Fox, and he later blamed his hedonistic attitude for his failure there. "I was so busy having fun that I didn't even learn my lines. I muffed a wonderful chance, and that was the end of me for a while."

He had been appearing on the Burns and Allen radio show, and concentrated on his record and broadcasting careers, though he . was given a leading role in Music in my Heart (1940) co-starring Rita Hayworth just before she graduated to superstardom. As a musician fighting deportation he introduced the Oscar-nominated "It's a Blue World". Martin's recording was his most popular to date, reaching No 2, and prompted MGM to cast him in Ziegfeld Girl, in which he romanced Hedy Lamarr and sang "You Stepped Out of a Dream" in a lavish sequence in which glamorous ladies, including Lamarr and Lana Turner, descend a staircase.

He was then cast as romantic lead in the Marx Brothers comedy The Big Store, in which he introduced the vocal tone poem, "The Tenement Symphony", which became a big hit in the UK and was to remain part of Martin's staple repertoire.

When the US entered thewar, Martin enlisted in the Navy, but was discharged after the officer who commissioned him was court-martialed for accepting a car as a gift. Though Martin joined the Army and entertained troops in India, the scandal caused some record labels to blacklist him and at war's end he signed with the small independent label, Mercury.

A string of hits, notably "To Each His Own", which reached No. 2 and sold a million copies, put him back into favour. Signed by RCA Victor, he recorded "Begin the Beguine" for the second time and had a big hit. MGM then gave him a prominent showcasing in the opulent biography of Jerome Kern, Till The Clouds Roll By (1947).

The following year he had his best screen role, in Casbah. With a quartet of fine songs by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin, Martin's version proved viable, and critics praised his performance. One of the songs, "For Every Man There's a Woman", was Oscar-nominated, and became another hit. In 1948 he married Cyd Charisse, and though she became a major dancing star in the 1950s, Martin's own career was sturdy enough for there to be no conflict.

Martin's theatre appearances included headlining at the London Palladium, and further hits included "There's No Tomorrow" (an adaptation of "O Sole Mio"), the novelty duet "I Said My Pajamas", with Fran Warren, and the suggestive "I Get Ideas". A fertile period for screen appearances included Two Tickets to Broadway (1951), in which he partnered Janet Leigh in a beguiling version of Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan", the Bob Hope vehicle Here Come the Girls (1953) and Easy to Love (1953), in which he romanced Esther Williams with such songs as "That's What a Rainy Day is For". His final starring role was opposite Vera-Ellen in the British musical Let's Be Happy.

In later years he concentrated on night-club and theatre appearances, and Charisse would often accompany him. She died in 2008, shortly after the durable Martin had played a five-night engagement at the New York venue Feinstein's. "His voice is more or less intact," said the New York Times. "Time has certainly taken its toll ... but the essential Tony Martin sound was still discernible."

Alvin Morris (Tony Martin), actor and singer: born San Francisco 25 December 1912; married 1938 Alice Faye (divorced 1940), 1948 Cyd Charisse (died 2008; one stepson, and one son deceased); died Los Angeles 27 July 2012.

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