Tony Martin, A Musical Life

By Mike McAlpin
Photography by Toby Burditt

Tony Martin moves a bit slower these days — understandable since he celebrated his 95th birthday last December. Even so, his steps are deliberate and he walks without a cane. He is trim and dresses nattily, which is in keeping with the black-and-white glamour shot of him outside the Rrazz Room in San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko.

Roughly 75 years ago, Martin’s music career took off as he played saxophone during the Big Band era. However, it was his romantic voice that catapulted him into the limelight as a recording artist, with such contemporaries as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

Martin appeared in dozens of Hollywood musicals, his own TV variety show and racked up 17 gold records. Four years shy of the century mark, Martin is on tour again and says he never tires of pleasing an audience with old standards.

“When I finished last night, I said, ‘Now that’s it, thank you very much,’ and they said, ‘No it isn’t, sing “Begin the Beguine” one more time!’ And I said, ‘My God, that’s the toughest song I know.’ ”

Yet he happily complied because he loves the Cole Porter tune, and during an interview with Saint Mary’s in January, he again offered up the lyrics, a capella, with a raspy beat, “When they begin the beguine, it brings back the sound of music so tender…”

After humming a bit of the rhythm section, the nonagenarian breaks it off chuckling, “You see, I’m starting to accompany myself. I sometimes do that.”

Tony Martin is a stage name. He was born Alvin Morris on Christmas day, 1913, the child of Jewish immigrants. He grew up in Oakland, where his love affair with music began.
Gifted with a sweet soprano voice as a youngster, his mother implored him to sing at her sewing club meetings. At first embarrassed, he says the enthusiastic applause meant he couldn’t wait for their next visit.

Those living room performances led to saxophone lessons, which eventually led to gigs in San Francisco nightclubs. But Martin says family expectations for his future had nothing to do with music.

“I was a musician at the time, and they were telling me I’d be a much better lawyer, to study some law,” he recalls.

So, like a dutiful son, he enrolled in Saint Mary’s in Moraga as part of the Class of 1934.

Although he never graduated, Martin remembers Saint Mary’s fondly. He lived at home and commuted to campus.

“It was very wonderful. I used to take the train from 41st and Broadway in Oakland.”

Although Martin says he wasn’t a top-flight scholar, he hit the books.

“I was always alert with my studies. I had passing grades in everything.”

But becoming a lawyer was more his parents’ dream than his. In his autobiography, The Two of Us, Martin writes that after joining Tom Gerun’s Orchestra (a popular West Coast band, whose recordings received national airplay), he told his family he wanted to drop school and pursue his music. The response was almost like the sky had fallen.

“‘Music? That’s for nobodies,’ my grandmother said. ‘You should be a lawyer and get respect.’”

Martin says he tried to live two lives — Saint Mary’s pre-law student by day, band member by night — but it didn’t work out.

“A Christian Brother called me into his office one day and said, ‘May I make a suggestion? You can’t be a full-time student and a full-time musician. I think you ought to take a leave from college until your situation becomes clear to you. Then if you want to return, you can.’ ”

Today, Martin is still on leave, and says music brought him greater joy than he ever expected. It put him on a path to meet his wife of 60 years, dancer Cyd Charisse.

A renowned performer in Hollywood musicals such as “Singing in the Rain,” Charisse was often paired with legendary hoofers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Martin says he always knew which of the two men his wife had danced with during the day — the graceful Astaire or the athletic perfectionist Kelly.

“She’d come home when she’d been working with Fred Astaire and she was exhausted,” he says. “And when she worked with Gene Kelly she was absolutely exhausted, because they kept doing things over and over.”

When Charisse died last year, Martin says he needed to get back out on stage because performing helps him manage the rough times of loneliness. He also appreciates each opportunity he has to sing.

“I look at God and say thanks, I do that as much as I can,” he says. “And I learned from singing good, really good songs, I let the songs dictate my life. They’re wonderful, beautiful ballads.”

Asked what wisdom he would have students at Saint Mary’s take from his experience, Martin says, “Be nice. Be thoughtful, and treat everybody with quality. Inherit that. Inherit that.”