Jasper Cini was born in Philadelphia on 7 October 1927. After serving in the US Navy during World War II – where he was injured during the invasion of Iwo Jima in the Pacific – he worked as a bricklayer in his family’s business.
Encouraged by his friend and idol Mario Lanza – whom he met while crooning in the bars of Philadelphia – he changed his name to Al Martino (his mother’s maiden name) and headed for New York to begin a career as a romantic Italian baritone.
His first singles, Heaven Help Me (I’m In Love) and I’m Afraid, were released by the Jubilee label to little success, but he reached a wider audience when he won the top TV talent show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, with his rendition of Perry Como‘s If.
His breakthrough hit came with Here In My Heart (1952). The song had been originally intended for Lanza, but the older singer ceded the song to the beginner.
The resulting hit was the first #1 on the UK’s newly established NME singles chart.
Martino’s performances instantly put him in the top drawer of romantic balladeers. Teenage bobbysoxers swooned over his romantic tones and Latin good looks, and at a time when Frank Sinatra‘s career was in decline, Al looked set to become the next King of the Hill.
His hit single brought him a record deal with Capitol which released his next single, Take My Heart – a #12 hit. But it also brought him to the attention of a couple of mobsters who muscled in to take over his management contract and demanded $75,000 as a guarantee against their future earnings.
Al fled to Britain, where he lived in exile for the next six years, scoring hits with songs including Now, Rachel and Wanted.
Thanks to the intervention of Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno, Martino was able to return to the States in 1958 and he enjoyed a string of hits in the 60s, including the enduring Spanish Eyes.
In 1972 he played the character Johnny Fontane in the wedding scene at the beginning of The Godfather (1972), singing I Have But One Heart. He also sang a version of the film’s theme, Speak Softly Love. Martino reprised the Fontane role in The Godfather Part III (1990).
He was still recording until the night before his death from a heart attack on 13 October 2009, aged 82, his final track being Garth Brooks’ If Tomorrow Never Comes.