Al Martino, Italian Crooner

Oct 13, 2021 102

BY: David J. Domino

Jasper Cini was born in Philadelphia on October 7, 1927. He grew up in Philadelphia's Italian section, known as South Philly. His parents were Italian immigrants from the region of Abruzzo. He worked as a bricklayer for his father's construction company for several years as a teenager. 

Young Jasper really enjoyed singing, practicing for hours every day, wanting to be just like his idols, Al Jolson and Perry Como. The success of a family friend, Alfredo Cocozza, who changed his name to Mario Lanza, encouraged young Jasper to follow his own dream.

Cini joined the U.S. Navy in 1944. He completed basic training in New Orleans, where he developed an admiration for country music. While defending our country in Iwo Jima, he suffered a shrapnel injury and was given orders to return home. While being back home, he began singing at a popular nightclub in Philadelphia and adopted the stage name Al Martino, after Mario Lanza suggested it. Martino was the last name of Cini's maternal grandfather.

In 1948, after singing in some establishments in Philly for a few years, Martino moved to NYC and continued working wherever he could find bookings. His first big break came in 1952, when he won first prize on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. He sang a popular Perry Como song on the television show. The success earned Martino a recording contract with BBS, a Philadelphia-based label. There, he recorded "Here in My Heart." The song was a #1 hit on the U.S. pop charts for 3 weeks in June of 1952. It was also number 1 in the UK. The huge success of "Here in My Heart" led to a deal with Capitol Records. "Take My Heart," another hit song by Martino that same year, peaked at number 12 on the pop charts.

Later in 1952, as Martino was gaining fame, a mobster showed up at the home of Martino's manager. The hoodlum said he was Martino's new manager and threatened the life of Martino’s real manager. Martino resisted the arrangement and was beaten by two mobsters at The 500 Club in Atlantic City. He decided to move to Britain to escape the entire situation, becoming very popular while in the UK. 

In 1958, with the help of a family friend who worked things out with the mob, he returned to the United States. In 1963, the song "I Love You Because" was his first hit song since his comeback. It peaked at #3 on the pop charts. Other hits followed such as "Mary in the Morning," "Love Is Blue," "Painted, Tainted Rose," "I Love You More and More Every Day," and "Spanish Eyes." A disco version of "Volare" in 1975 also became a hit. It reached #1 on the Italian and Flemish charts and 33 on the U.S. charts.

Despite an extremely popular recording career, Martino is mostly remembered for his role as crooner Johnny Fontaine in Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 film “The Godfather.” The character was loosely based on Frank Sinatra. Martino and Sinatra were friends until Sinatra heard that Martino played the role of Fontaine. Consequently, Sinatra held a grudge against Martino and even had the crooner banned from appearing in Las Vegas.

This Italian American war hero, creative bricklayer, fabulous crooner and entertaining actor passed away in Springfield, PA on October 13, 2009, only six days after his 82nd birthday. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, CA.

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