Tony Martin, the debonair baritone whose career spanned some 80 years in films and nightclubs and on radio and television, died Friday at his home in West Los Angeles. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his business manager, Stan Schneider.
Martin’s long life in show business began in the late 1920s, when he formed his first band at Oakland Technical High School in California. He was still performing in nightclubs around the country well into the 21st century.
“Tony Martin may be his generation’s Last Man Standing," Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times in January 2008. The occasion was a five-night engagement at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York, where Martin sang his hits from a half-century earlier while dropping names of colleagues he had outlived, like Bing Crosby and Perry Como.
After a chorus or two of, say, “The Very Thought of You," Martin would interject: “Ray Noble, lovely guy. I met him when I did the Palladium in London, and he asked me to sing that song."
A few lines of “I Don’t Know Why" would recall Russ Columbo, who popularized it. “I was working with Woody Herman in Tom Gerun’s band in Oakland," Martin would tell his audience, “when we heard that both Columbo and Bing Crosby were singing with Gus Arnheim’s band down in L.A. So we drove down to hear them."
In the 1940s, Martin was to popular song what Fred Astaire was to dance.
His popularity later helped propel a successful performing partnership with his wife, the dancer and actress Cyd Charisse, in nightclubs and on television. Their marriage lasted 60 years, ending with Charisse’s death at 86 in June 2008.
Tony Martin was born Alvin Morris in San Francisco on Dec. 25, 1913; his family moved across the bay to Oakland soon after. His parents were well-off Jewish immigrants from Poland who wanted him to be a lawyer. He attended St. Mary’s, a Christian Brothers college in nearby Moraga. “I left in 1932," he once said, “after one of the brothers told me I was flunking everything and should stick to music."
He headed for Hollywood, where a new name, his good looks and his voice soon had him working steadily, mostly in small parts, starting with that of a sailor in “Follow the Fleet" (1936), a song-and-dance feature starring Astaire and Rogers. Later that year he appeared in “Sing, Baby, Sing," starring Alice Faye, whom he married in 1937. That marriage ended in divorce in 1940.
He eventually won larger roles in musicals like “Here Come the Girls" (1953) and “Hit the Deck" (1955).
Martin made his radio debut in the early 1930s on “Lucky Strike Hour." He later became a regular on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show." For a time in the 1950s he was the host of “The Tony Martin Show," a 15-minute television variety series.
From 1938 to 1942 he recorded constantly, mostly for Decca. His hits included “Begin the Beguine," “There’s No Tomorrow" (an adaptation of “O Sole Mio") and “I Get Ideas," taken from an Argentine tango and much criticized at the time for its supposed sexual innuendo.
Martin served in World War II, then signed with Mercury, then a small independent label based in Chicago. When one of his Mercury discs, “To Each His Own," became a million seller, RCA Victor, one of the major labels, offered him a contract. He remained with RCA for the rest of his career.
Martin married Charisse on May 15, 1948, in a City Hall ceremony in Santa Barbara, Calif. They had a son, Tony Martin Jr., who died in 2011. Survivors include Charisse’s son from her first marriage, Nico Charisse, and two step-grandchildren.
In 1976, Martin and Charisse were co-authors, with Dick Kleiner, of “The Two of Us," a book chronicling their lives together.