So, we begin. Going back, back, way back in time, before boy and girl bands, before dance, punk, psychedelia, The Beatles and rock’n’roll, to a smog-ridden UK on 14 November 1952.
Winston Churchill’s Conservatives had been back in power a year, following Labour’s huge socialist changes to the country after World War Two under Clement Atlee, and Elizabeth II had ascended to the throne earlier that year (that’s right, she’s been Queen longer than the charts have existed). That March, Maurice Kinn and Percy Dickins bought the Musical Express and Accordion Weekly, transforming it into the New Musical Express (wish it had kept that name). Dickins had been following what Billboard were doing with their chart system in the US, and decided to follow suit, with the charmingly antiquated and inaccurate system of ringing around 20 record stores around the country to find out what vinyl 78s were selling the most. He compiled a top 12 (Why 12? Who knows?) and thus US singer and actor Al Martino made history.
Martino was born Jasper Cini in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 7 October 1927. His parents were Italian immigrants who ran a construction business, and he worked as a bricklayer along with his brothers. But the young Cini aspired to be a singer and would emulate heroes like Perry Como and Al Jolson. Key to his ambitions was family friend Mario Lanza, who had become popular and encouraged Cini to follow in his footsteps.
Cini served with the United States Navy during World War Two, and after the war was over, Lanza suggested he try singing in local nightclubs. He adopted the stage name Al Martino and moved to New York in 1948, recording for the Jubilee label.
In a sense, Martino was the singles chart’s original X Factor-style success story. In 1952, he won first place on the TV show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which earned him a recording contract to record this single.
After reaching number 1 in the US, Here in My Heart remained at number 1 for nine consecutive weeks in the fledgling UK top 12, making it the only chart-topper of 1952, and therefore, the first Christmas number 1, too. Only seven other tracks have lasted longer – Bryan Adams’s (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, Wet Wet Wet’s cover of Love is All Around, One Dance by Drake, David Whitfield’s Cara Mia, Rihanna’s Umbrella, I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston and most recently, Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.
It’s hard to see the huge appeal of Here in my Heart now. All the tracks above have their critics (me amongst them), but you can see how they did well. Martino’s track is a maudlin, melancholy piece of pop-opera (popera?) in which he shows off his vocal range to a slushy string-laden backing. The tune is forgotten as soon as the track ends, but to a country still suffering trauma from a terrible war, it may have provided some succour to the UK in the early 50s.
Martino signed with Capitol Records soon after, and the Mafia took an interest in him too, buying out his management and ordering him to pay thousands to them as a ‘safeguard’. Martino did what he was told, but wisely decided to move to the UK afterwards.
The chart hits continued here until 1955, but he had little exposure in his home country. Fortunately a family friend intervened and Martino returned to the US in 1958, but it wasn’t easy to resume his career thanks to the impact of rock’n’roll. The Exciting Voice of Al Martino, his 1962 LP, helped turn his fortunes around.
The following year he scored another big single in the US with his version of I Love You Because, and in 1966 he had his final top 10 hit on these shores with Spanish Eyes.
Martino’s run-in with the Mafia took on a whole new meaning when he played Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (1972) and sang the theme tune, Speak Softly Love. He would return to the role in The Godfather Part III in 1990.
The first ever UK number 1 singles star continued to record and perform into the 21st century. Al Martino died of a heart attack on 13 October 2009, aged 82.
Written by: Pat Genaro, Lou Levinson & Bill Borrelli
Producer: Voyle Gilmore
Weeks at number 1: 9 (14 November 1952-15 January 1953)
Comedian Mel Smith – 3 December
TV presenter Clive Anderson – 10 December
Actress Jenny Agutter – 20 December
Journalist and politician Jackie Ballard/Director and producer Richard Boden – 4 January
In the News:
25 November: Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap began its run at the New Ambassador Theatre in London.
4-9 December: The Great Smog of London enveloped the capital, causing approximately 4000 deaths.
12 December: The fondly remembered children’s TV show Flower Pot Men, chronicling the adventures of Bill and Ben, debuted on the BBC Television service.
25 December: The Queen made her first ever Christmas speech to the Commonwealth, sat in the same chair as George V and George VI before her.