I've seen a lot of obituaries for Tony Martin, and they all hit the obvious marks -- dozens of hit singles from the '30s into the rock n' roll era; actor in countless classic musical films; married for 60 years to the legendary Cyd Charisse; and of course the amazing length of his career, which spanned from the 1920s to well into the 21st century.
But nobody seems to have mentioned what I found so amazing when I saw him perform in 2007 and '08 at Feinstein's in New York City. Unlike virtually every other singer of the Great American Songbook working today, Tony Martin's vocal style wasn't at all influenced by Frank Sinatra. And with good reason -- he was the last surviving singer of the pre-Sinatra era.
In this day and age, close to 75 years removed from Sinatra's emergence and almost 15 since his death, it's almost impossible to imagine that anything came before him. But Tony Martin was a contemporary of the crooners who came of age in the '20s and '30s, such as Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. By the time Sinatra made his debut on record in 1939, Martin was already an established hit-maker with Ray Noble's orchestra. His big, romantic baritone sound was much closer to that of Columbo -- a good friend of his who died in 1934 -- than of Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Perry Como or any of the crooners who altered the pop vocal landscape in the '40s and beyond.
A lot of Martin's early records sound positively prehistoric by today's standards. Lush, unsubtle, with swirling strings and almost operatic vocals, they're great pop records of the time, but hear too many of them and it's easy to understand what Sinatra and his ilk were rebelling against with their quieter, more intimate style of crooning. And Martin never really learned to swing, even when doing so became almost a requirement for pop singers. It's small wonder that the hits (among them "I Get Ideas" and "La Vie En Rose") dried up for him by the end of the '50s.
But his refusal -- or inability -- to change his style to suit the times worked in his favor later in his career, when he went from being outdated to an amazing anachronism. When I saw him perform in person, he was in his mid-90s, and his voice was a frail, delicate husk of the booming, powerful instrument it had been in decades past. But the technique, the style, remained virtually unchanged. It was like witnessing a music history lesson in the flesh.
I don't love Tony Martin's music in the same way I love Sinatra's or Bobby Darin's or Tony Bennett's. Maybe I was just born too late, into a world in which Martin's style had long since been overtaken by newer modes of vocalizing. At the same time, though, his best work is a reminder of a long-gone era of romance and, cheesy though it may be to say it, innocence. An era to which the last living link has now departed.
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