Singer Tony Martin, 'the ultimate crooner,' dies

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.

Martin never became a full-fledged movie star but was featured in 25 films, most made during the heyday of the Hollywood musicals. Six 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 film. 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 biggest stars. Married in 1937, they 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 agent arranged another date. This time they clicked and married in 1948. She had a son, Nicky, from 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.

Martin first performed in Las Vegas in 1947 - at the Flamingo hotel-casino, where mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel called the shots.

Martin often performed with Charisse. But he also turned up solo on Strip marquees; a 1963 Review-Journal story noted a five-week run at the Riviera.

Martin emerged from a 10-year semiretirement in 1988 when Bob Stupak booked him at Vegas World (now the Stratosphere), where he performed such signature tunes as "Begin the Beguine" with a 13-piece big band; he returned to Vegas World two years later.

"I don't take coming to Vegas lightly," Martin told Review-Journal writer Mike Weatherford in 1988. "You have to do your best and be on the ball." (Martin was 75 at the time.)

In that 1988 interview, Martin recalled his early Vegas days, when he befriended Siegel - who, Martin recalled, "gave me hell one time for calling him Bugsy ... he felt so bad about it he later gave me a watch" - and Howard Hughes, who took Martin for rides and boasted "all this land from here to the mountain is mine." (All that land eventually became Summerlin.)

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

Martin was born Dec. 25, 1913. His parents divorced when he was an infant.

"I was a Christmas present in a family that didn't believe in Christmas," Martin wrote. "The name they gave me when I was born on Christmas Day, 1913, was Alvin Morris. Tony Martin wasn't born for a long time after that."

He attended St. Mary's College of California, where he and other students formed a jazz combo, The Five Red Peppers. After college, he formed Al Morris and His Orchestra and played in San Francisco nightclubs such as the Chez Paree, often appearing on late-night national radio.

MGM chief Louis B. Mayer heard Martin sing "Poor Butterfly" on radio and ordered a screen test. It was a failure, but an agent landed Morris a contract at RKO, where he got a new name. He had enjoyed the music of Freddie Martin at the Coconut Grove, so he borrowed the name. "Tony" came from a magazine story.

His career at RKO was notable for a one-line bit in the 1936 "Follow the Fleet," which starred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He had better luck at Fox, but nightclubbing every night with a succession of film beauties detracted from his work.

"I was so busy having fun that I didn't even learn my lines," he admitted in 1955. "I muffed a wonderful chance, and that was the end of me for a while."

World War II brought the one big scandal in his life. He enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and was given a specialist ranking. A year later, a Navy officer who facilitated Martin's enlistment was court-martialed, accused of accepting a $950 automobile from him. The singer was not charged but was dismissed from the Navy for unfitness. He asked his draft board for immediate induction into the Army and served three years in Asia.

He is survived by stepson Nico Charisse.

The Review-Journal contrubuted to this report.