BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
He had made a big splash when he played the role of the troubled wedding singer Johnny Fontane in the movie The Godfather. But Al Martino had no particular desire to do another film when he came to Canada in 1975 to perform the easy-listening pop favourites that had kept him going throughout the hard-rock explosion of the mid-sixties and early seventies.
“Thank god for MOR (middle-of-the-road) radio stations,” he told me during an interview at a Calgary nightclub. “They’ve got the listeners. They play the records, and they keep us alive. As long as I’ve got radio, that’s all I need. It’s the fastest way of getting into people’s homes.”
Martino was then 47 and riding high in the pop charts with a ballad called “To the Door of the Sun.” Over the previous 12 years, he had recorded nine Top 40 singles, the biggest-selling of which proved to be “Blue Spanish Eyes.” He told me his next single would be a disco version of “Volare,” Dean Martin’s smash hit of 1958. Martino was investing all his professional efforts in his recording career at that point because he didn’t think he would be doing any more movies. “I’m probably taboo in the industry anyhow because of all the problems with The Godfather.”
Those problems stemmed, he said, from film director Francis Ford Coppola’s desire to have singer Vic Damone play the part of Fontane, a character loosely based on Frank Sinatra. Producer Al Ruddy insisted that Martino do the role. “I think a lot of the problem was due to the fact that I was new and fresh in the motion picture industry,” said Martino. “And the movie people I met didn’t seem to like outsiders invading their domain. Coppola didn’t think I could act. He said I was just a singer.”
Sinatra, too, had problems with Martino playing the Fontane character. But that was because Sinatra didn’t want anyone playing the part of an unsavoury character supposedly based on him. It was later reported in the Philadelphia Daily News that Sinatra developed such a hatred for Martino after the movie was released that he refused to find casino gigs for him in Las Vegas when Martino was having career problems.
With the film experience behind him, Martino turned again to recording, and was gratified to discover he could still make the Top 40 with his old-fashioned love ballads. “It’s not easy,” he told me. “But Como and Sinatra proved before that it could be done. They’ve had records in the charts too when the pop industry was dominated by top rock stars.”
He had been disappointed during the 1960s when his record company, Capitol-EMI, left him in the lurch without promotional backing while throwing its support behind the emerging Beatles. But he said he never considered meeting with the Beatles to discuss this. “After all, they were my competition,” he said. “I enjoyed their music but I never went out of my way to meet them. I wouldn’t even go out of my way to meet Sinatra, and you can quote me on that.”
The secret to continuing success, Martino said, was to maintain confidence in his ability to overcome the formidable difficulties involved in cracking the pop-rock charts, change record companies if necessary (he opted to stay with Capitol-EMI) and preserve a solid unchanging style. To demonstrate that self-assurance and rock-hard consistency, he charmed the Calgary club audience with a smooth parade of his record hits, including “I Love You Because,” “Mary in the Morning,” “Quando, Quando” and “Speak Softly Love,” the theme from The Godfather. One beaming woman was so taken by Martino’s musical romancing that she refused to let go after he kissed her hand. That’s amore.
True to form, Martino did hit the charts again with his disco cover of “Volare.” But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for him after that. In 1979, he was arrested for shoplifting $100 worth of shirts and socks from a department store in Framingham, Massachusetts. He was given probation and ordered to pay $300 in court costs.
Notwithstanding his differences with the movie industry, Martino did reprise the role of Johnny Fontane in 1990’s The Godfather: Part III. He continued to sing and record for another 19 years after that, until his death in 2009 at age 82. His final performance was at a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of opera star Mario Lanza, Martino’s boyhood friend and idol.
Martino’s last single, recorded the day before he died, was a cover of Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” While he never stopped recording, Martino had long ago lost the feeling of satisfaction he got from having his love songs in the pop charts that simultaneously featured the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. “I can’t sell records in stores anymore,” he said wistfully. “Everything is online, and I don’t have the access to younger audiences. So 20 or 30 years from now, how are kids going to feel romance?”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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