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LOVE'S OLD SWEET SONG IN TODAY'S NOISY WORLD, MARTINI MUSIC FIGHTS BACK

CABARET songs.

Lounge music.

Easy listening.

Brought to you by crooners, spooners and balladeers.

If it had nothing else, the music of the 1940s and 1950s had what show biz calls legs. And it has something else: voices.

Voices like Tony Bennett's. About 20 years ago, before he was rediscovered by MTV, which hadn't even been invented yet, Bennett remarked:

"I think of the pop music business today as dealing in lead, and I'm in the silver business."

He isn't the only vintage singer who feels that way.

"I have to agree with him on that, absolutely, 100 percent," says Al Martino. Only he is speaking of right here, right now. He would love to sit down with some of today's teen-agers for just half an hour, he says, and tell them why they should care about love songs.

Or he could do it another way -- he could sing. Martino is bring his tuxedo and rich baritone voice to Buffalo Sunday for two performances, at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Hearthstone Manor. On the phone from Philadelphia earlier this week, he compares the enduring appeal of his songs -- "Here in My Heart," "Spanish Eyes," "Mary in the Morning" -- to more recent Top 10 hits.

"When I first started (in 1952), even the teen-age songs had romance, but some of the teen-age songs now have no romance at all. I don't like the ones that have no melody," Martino says bluntly. "I really don't see any romance in rap -- those are message songs.

"I can't see anyone saying, 20 years from now, that this or that rap song had anything to do with when I fell in love."

Martino stepped into the nightclub scene as the Big Band era was winding down, just three years before Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" took over the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Top 10. His friend and mentor Mario Lanza (called the greatest tenor of his time, before weight and temperament problems torpedoed his career -- he died in 1959 at age 38) encouraged Martino to try singing as a career. Before then, he was laying bricks for homes in suburban Washington, D.C., in a construction business with his father.

Martino never looked back.

"I'm looking forward," he says instead, "to the Buffalo audience, because my first engagement was in the Town Casino here in Buffalo."

In the years since then, Martino has found fans around the world who are unwillingly to say good-bye to songs of love. He tours for about 40 weeks every year -- a schedule that could be grueling to anyone who was 69 years old, if he didn't enjoy it so much -- and he says he gives each show everything he's got.

"Audiences are exactly the same everywhere," Martino says. "If they like what they see and what they hear, they respond exactly alike. . . . It's showmanship."

He knows that his songs can bring tears to the eyes of the people around him, but he never chokes up during a performance.

"I never cry. These songs make me happy," he says.
The songs Martino, Bennett and all the great club singers made their own are beloved because, really, no one person does own them. Judy Garland may be forever linked to Harold Arlen's masterpiece "Over the Rainbow," but almost any singer able to present the song with clarity and innocence can move an audience with it. Many have.

Julius LaRosa, called by legendary music critic Gene Lees "the most brilliant member of the Sinatra school," still does it -- he's coming to the Hearthstone a year from now. Sinatra himself said singer Vic Damone -- now married to singer/actress Diahann Carroll -- had "the best set of pipes in the business." Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme remain regulars at Melody Fair.

The magic happens when the artist brings his or her talent to the microphone and wraps it around a song with a universal theme of love or loss or bittersweet regrets. When the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a story in June about the end of the classic "standard" song, it drew one of the largest responses from readers of almost anything in the magazine's 100-year history. Most weren't writing to argue. They were writing to tell about their own favorite songs, the ones they find themselves humming at the oddest times.

Joe Chili, program director for WECK-AM radio, talks about the enduring appeal of what his station calls "The Music of Your Life."

"It's the passion that the music evokes in people," Chili says. "It's like walking into a house and smelling baking bread, or cinnamon. Or, if you smell evergreen, you don't say 'Hmm, evergreen,' you think 'Omigod, it's Christmas!'

"Nobody can take that music away from people."

And, though WECK traditionally ranks in the top 10 in local listenership, Chili says the listeners themselves may be changing.

"We call ourselves 'adult standards,' and we have an audience that's 45-plus or 50-plus," Chili says. "But with Tony Bennett's popularity, and with movies more often playing the old songs -- like 'Home Alone,' and nobody was listening to 'What a Wonderful World' until they played it again in 'Good Morning, Vietnam' -- we're seeing younger people more interested.

"Some of these songs, the classics, are timeless. We're realizing that just because a song came out of the '50s or the '60s doesn't mean it's gone."

And for many older music lovers, the songs never went away. Chili says between 700 and 800 people turn out at dances WECK sponsors four times a year at the Hearthstone. The Gus Broncato Orchestra plays tunes from "remember when," and the next dance is next Friday, Nov. 1.

"And these folks don't come to sit and listen," Chili says. "They come to get up and dance."

A different constituency fills the "gin and sin" nights at nouveau lounge clubs dedicated to the resurrection of '50s instrumental Space Age Bachelor Pad music. This is the lounge music of the Internet, where a single search on the topic brings up thousands of potential sites to visit.

In Lounge Nation, the emphasis is on the cheesy, the swinging, the cocktail side of the electro-lush world. But it is an affectionate fandom. As the listing for Maxwell's Bistro in Ottawa (which features "a happening lounge night every Wed.") puts it, "This is nostalgic cheese at its best, yet quality and professionalism are respected."

The gig, it says, attract music lovers from their early 20s to late 70s.

The uninitiated may suspect this is one of those East Coast, West Coast trends that the rest of the country never truly buys into, but Swank 'n Suave are the keywords for "My Vinyl Recliner," a radio show in Portland, Maine. In Auburn Hills, Mich., "Champagne and Dynamite" hits the airwaves every Thursday afternoon. "The Mister Smooth Hour" rolls across the plains of Kansas, and on to Oklahoma and Colorado.

Anyone wanting to turn on to the martini set can reach it through the World Wide Web at http://www.users.interport.net/--joholmes/sources/html

Most true lovers of romance will prefer their music more up close, more personal, more Martino. He, Tony, Nat, Jerry, Vic -- all of them -- always knew how to make their songs "our song." Even though not everybody can do it, it isn't a big secret, Martino says.

"There's only one way to sing about love, whatever song you're singing," he says. "You put your heart and soul into it. Lyric is everything -- you have to pay attention to the words, and you have to sing it like you mean it."

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