Monday, November 20, 2006

Al Martino - A Merry Christmas

There are exactly two discs left in my stack of CDs waiting to be reviewed - this is the first of those two.

I've held off posting it here at the yuleblog until now because it segues rather nicely into the 2006 downloading season (more on that in a while).

A scene from the movie "The Godfather":

Kay Adams: Michael, you never told me your family knew Johnny Fontane!
Michael Corleone: Oh sure, you want to meet him?
Kay: Yeah!
Michael: You know, my father helped Johnny in his career.
Kay: Really? How?
Michael: ...Let's listen to this song.
Kay: (after listening to Johnny for a while) Please, Michael. Tell me.
Michael: ...Well when Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to this contract with a big-band leader. And as his career got better and better he wanted to get out of it. Now, Johnny is my father's godson. My father went to see the bandleader, with a contract for $10,000 to let Johnny go, but the bandleader said no. So the next day, my father went to see the bandleader again, only this time with Luca Brasi. Within an hour, the bandleader signed the release, with a certified check of $1000.
Kay: How did he do that?
Michael: My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

If you haven't guessed by now, Al Martino is best known for his portrayal as Johnny Fontane in that epic movie. However, Al's successful recording career deserves to be known and has had some definite peaks that even Frank Sinatra - the alleged inspiration for Johnny Fontane - never had in his storied career.

Born Alfred Cini in Philadelphia in 1927, he grew up in a middle class family that owned its own construction business. By day, Al would work at construction sites and then sing in clubs and saloons by night.

A friend of the family who originally drove a truck for a living was just beginning to make a name for himself as a singer. He encouraged Martino to quit construction (like he did) and give singing a full time shot. Not bad advice from Mario Lanza!

Al made his television debut on Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scout Show" in 1950. His winning performance on that show landed Martino a recording contract with Capitol Records. A few years later, Lanza would appear again in Al's life - unknowingly giving Al the break of a lifetime.

Lanza was scheduled to record a song but thanks to his difficult schedule, he couldn't make the date. Capitol then turned to Martino who gladly stepped in and recorded it. The song was "Here In My Heart" and it became an international smash for Martino in 1952.

How big was this song? It reached number one in America and it became the very first number one EVER on the UK Singles Chart - winning a place in the Guinness Book Of World Records subsequently (top that, ol' Blue Eyes)!

Throughout the rest of the 1950s, Martino continued to record and sold a moderate amount of albums in the United States - there was a more famous Italian singer who was dominating the charts at this time (three guesses). In the UK, he had a consecutive string of six Top Ten singles during this time and his popularity throughout Europe took a firm foothold.

This Christmas album was recorded and released in 1964 and it's a beaut. The very first song on the album is Al's signature Christmas song - "You're All I Want For Christmas". This song would get my vote for "Most Underused and Appreciated Christmas Song" of all time. It's that good!

The album contains four pop standards ("Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", "White Christmas", "Medley: We Wish You A Merry Christmas / Silver Bells", and "I'll Be Home For Christmas". Then Martino switches gears and sing traditional carols very well ("The Little Drummer Boy", "What Child Is This?", "Silent Night", "O Holy Night", and "O Come All Ye Faithful").

Al's warm, rich voice - a cross between Perry Como and Dean Martin - makes each track come to life. Produced by longtime Sinatra producer Voyle Gilmore, this album reached the Top Ten during Christmas, 1964 - at the very height of the British Invasion.

I first became aware of Martino singing Christmas carols during the 2000 Christmas season when I heard "You're All I Want For Christmas". I began searching for his Christmas album but found it was long out of print.

Then I found this in 2003:

johnny fontane

Purchased at a garage sale for 25 cents (don't you just LOVE when that happens?), I was ecstatic! The only problem was that I didn't own a record player at the time so I threw it into my pile of records labeled "waiting to be recorded one day".

Last year, when I began sharing out Christmas albums, I discovered this album among my lost gems in the stack and couldn't wait to share it with everyone. A quick search of the Internet informs me that back in 2002, Collector's Choice decided to release this album on CD (with a bonus track of "Silver Bells" all by its lonesome).

This brings me to the point of why I held back on this CD review for some time. In the next few weeks, you're going to find hundreds of Christmas albums out there for easy pickings - yes, including a few from me. I still could have gone ahead with my plans and shared this album out.

But if it's available elsewhere on CD, I won't. It's not fair to the artists involved and my conscious remains clear. End of story. Click on this link to purchase your own copy (only $10 - a steal!).

Martino continued his recording career throughout the 1960s and 1970s - scoring a surprise number one hit in America with "Spanish Eyes" in 1966. As his recording popularity died down in the US, it only rose to greater heights in Europe.

Case in point: Martino recorded "Volare" in 1976 and it reached number 1 in both Italy and Belgium while making the top ten in Holland and Spain (try that on for size, Frankie!).

During the 1980s, his popularity waned in Europe and everyone thought that was the end of that. Not so fast. Just like Tony Bennett's rennaissance in America during the early 1990s, Al enjoyed renewed popularity at the same time in Germany and became as popular as - dare I say this? - David Hasselhoff!

To this day, Martino consistently sells out concerts and sells well in Europe. I would love to see Al get some of that popularity here in the US again. It's well deserved and long overdue - no deal with the Godfather necessary.

On to the next new Christmas CD in my collection...



PDMan said...

One of my favorite Chritmas LP's. An underrated gem.

CaptainOT said...

PDman - I'm not sure why Martino hasn't gotten his due but you are correct: this one's been flying under the radar long enough!