Al Martino, 82, the South Philadelphia bricklayer who became a chart-topping crooner and who also is remembered for appearing as Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, died yesterday at his Delaware County home.
Longtime friend Jerry Blavat, who last night confirmed Mr. Martino's passing, said he was in shock because he'd had dinner with the singer Monday night at a South Philadelphia restaurant.
"He looked fine," said Blavat, the veteran Philadelphia disc jockey, who knew Mr. Martino for five decades.
"It's so crazy," Blavat said. "Having dinner with him last night - dead now."
Blavat said Mr. Martino "was a hero in South Philadelphia, with that magnificent voice of his."
Born Alfred Cini in Philadelphia in 1927, Mr. Martino was expected to follow his brothers into his family's successful masonry business. But, according to his Web site, he preferred listening to music, especially Perry Como and Al Jolson. And after childhood friend Alfred Cocozza changed his name to Mario Lanza, Mr. Martino changed his as well, adopting his grandfather's surname, Martino.
Mr. Martino scored a number of hits, starting in 1952 with "Here in My Heart" and following up with "I Love You Because," "I Love You More and More Every Day," "Daddy's Little Girl," and "Mary in the Morning."
Blavat recalled that "Here in My Heart" reached No. 1 in Britain. Mr. Martino was the first American to top the British singles chart.
Mr. Martino's biggest hit was "Spanish Eyes" in 1965.
In 1972, he was featured in the The Godfather as the Sinatra-esque character Johnny Fontane.
In a 1999 interview with The Inquirer, Mr. Martino recalled how he was involved early with the production of the classic film and was asked to travel to Italy to offer the lead role to Anthony Quinn.
But Quinn asked for too much money, and the role went to Marlon Brando.
Mr. Martino also recalled that his contract was bought by mobsters, and that when he tried to terminate the relationship, he was beaten, after which he moved to England for several years.
He grew up at 15th and Tasker Streets and became an apprentice bricklayer as a youth, but he ran away from home while a teenager, hitchhiked to Louisiana, and joined the Navy in 1943, he said.
Mr. Martino said he had wanted to write his autobiography but refused to reveal embarrassing secrets about other famous people.
"Because I wouldn't tell all, 14 publishers shot it down," he said.
Blavat said Mr. Martino "was the last of a show-business era."
Mr. Martino is survived by his wife, Judi; a son, Al Cini; and daughters Alison Martino and Alana Cini.
Services were pending.