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, died of natural causes Friday evening at his West Los Angeles home. He was 98.
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.”
Although he never became a full-fledged movie star, he was featured in 25 films, most of them made during the heyday of the Hollywood musicals. A husky 6 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 the film business. 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 20th 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 studio’s biggest stars. Married in 1937, the newlyweds 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 persistent agent arranged another date. This time they clicked, and they married in 1948. She had a son Nicky, born of 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 Charisse 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.
“His voice is more or less intact,” a New York Times critic wrote when he appeared at a New York club in early 2008. “Time has certainly taken its toll. He no longer belts. … But the essential Tony Martin sound was still discernible.”
Martin was born in San Francisco, and 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 popular jazz combo, The Five Red Peppers. After college, he formed Al Morris and His Orchestra, and played in San Francisco nightclubs like the Chez Paree, often appearing on latenight national radio.
MGM chief Louis B. Mayer heard the bandleader 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.”
WWII 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.
The scandal lingered over Martin after the war, but he managed to rebuild his career with radio, films, personal appearances and records.
He is survived by stepson Nico Charisse.
Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City was handling funeral arrangements.