A Tale of Two Actors, Singing
THE MOTOWN ‘SOUND’ OF ALBERT FINNEY AND TONY MARTIN
The bigger your heart is, the harder you’ll fall.
That piece of cheese was recorded for Motown by American actor/singer Tony Martin and went to market in the summer of ’65. The song was co-authored by Ron Miller and published under Jobete Music’s Tin Pan Alley-sounding imprint Stein & Van Stock. To say the least, it lacked the appeal of another Miller/S&VS copyright, “For Once In My Life.”
Martin himself can be classed as one of Motown’s old-school follies, when Berry Gordy sought star names from music’s past to join his roster of neophytes, as his business gained traction on the charts of the mid-1960s.
This all came to mind after the recent death of Albert Finney, another celebrated actor/singer who had once recorded for Motown. Granted, Finney was from a very different (and British) school of dramatic art, but the release in 1977 of his album for Gordy’s firm caused as much head-scratching as the news of Martin’s signing 13 years earlier.
Former Motown executive Barney Ales had to contend with both – one under duress, the other by choice. “There was a club on Sunset where they had all those old stars,” he said of Martin, Bobby Breen and Connie Haines, among others signed to Motown circa 1964-65. “I told Berry to stop going. He made some of the worst mistakes in the world with those records. I said to him, ‘If I can’t sell Debbie Dean and Chris Clark, how am I going to sell this other shit?’”
Ales had a hard time selling Albert Finney’s Album, too, but Motown was a very different creature by that time. The project came in through the company’s London-based international chief, Ken East, and Ales found that – music apart – he had something in common with Manchester-born Finney. “His dad was a bookie and a barber.” So was Ales’ father, in Detroit. Were either of them ever visited by the authorities? “My father? No. But Albert’s father used to get raided.” The two barbers’ sons became friends.
But first, Tony Martin. The Oakland-born grandson of immigrants was enormously popular in the U.S. from the 1930s to the 1950s, basking in the glow of successful movies and more than a dozen Top 10 hit singles. During World War II, he even sang with the Glenn Miller band. Martin recorded for Decca, RCA and Mercury – and, coincidentally, was signed to the last of those labels by the man who would run Motown Industries for nine months in 1974, Berle Adams.
Berry Gordy once explained to me the rationale behind such ’60s acquisitions. “Even though I would want to push the Motown sound, I always liked Broadway, always liked movies, and I tried at different times to do different things. I was always trying to expand, but when I would expand and start losing my base, I’d have to get back.”
LOSING THE BASE?
Marc Gordon, who ran Motown’s Los Angeles office in 1964-65, produced the Martin recording sessions with Hal Davis. Only six tracks were ever released, but there’s more in the can. For one, Barney Ales is convinced that the singer cut “Ask The Lonely” before the Four Tops. For another, Motown taped Martin in concert in New York during October 1965, at the Americana Hotel’s Royal Box nightclub. His Live At The Americana album was scheduled for release the following year, but never appeared.
Martin surprised people when explaining who he made records for, including the host of TV’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In his book The Motown Music Machine, studio engineer Harold Taylor recalled watching the interview and hearing Carson enquire about the star’s label affiliation. “Johnny Carson laughed,” wrote Taylor, “like, ‘Motown, who are these people? I’ve never heard of them!’” It was June 1965.
Yet Martin was upbeat in an interview with the Boston Globe, just a few weeks earlier. Telling his enquirer that he was with Motown, the 51-year-old said, “I’ll have some [records] comin’ out with a new sound and new everything.” He added, “I’m gonna do the kind they want. I do what they tell me.” A pause. “I may become the greatest old folk singer of our time.”
Knowing that’s not what he became, it’s even more peculiar that his son should sign to Motown some time later. Tony Martin Jr. was part of Martin & Finley, a singing/songwriting pair who made an album released in 1974, Dazzle ’em With Footwork. This was produced by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and first intended for MoWest, but eventually appeared on Motown, to no discernible sales. It wasn’t for lack of support: Martin Jr. and Guy Finley were backed on the album by the likes of Lowell George, Wilton Felder, Dean Parks, Ernie Watts, and the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston, with arrangements by Gaudio and David Van DePitte.
Still, no chart dazzle.
When making his album, Albert Finney had proven help, too. Its producer and arranger was Denis King, once a member of British teen hitmakers, the King Brothers. In addition to accruing Top 10 records in the U.K. like “A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)” and “Standing On The Corner,” these three youngsters appeared in concert and/or on TV with a cavalcade of stars, including Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra.
AN $18,000 BUDGET
Finney’s own career breakthrough came in 1960 with a starring role in one of the so-called “kitchen-sink” film dramas of the era, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. This was followed by Tom Jones, which earned him an Oscar nomination, and by well-received roles on Broadway and in more movies. It was during the ’60s that he befriended King, to whom he turned when a music publisher suggested making an album. “The thought…hadn’t occurred to me,” Finney told a journalist. “But then Denis said that it would cost about $18,000. You couldn’t even start a film for that amount. I thought it was a bargain price and an attractive proposition for my production company.”
Finney began by recording several standards, but opted to create original material with music written and arranged by King. The result was decidedly an actor’s work, with songs on the subject of war (“But I Was A Child,” reflecting his experience of World War II; “We’ll Be Okay,” about the prospect of nuclear annihilation), his birthplace (“What Have They Done”), and the women in his life (“Those Other Men,” “They Say”).
By 1977, when this album was presented to him, Barney Ales was running Motown Records in Los Angeles. Familiar with Finney’s acting career, he was surprised at the music’s calibre. “I thought his voice was good. And it was easier to book him on The Tonight Show and others around the country than it was with some of our black artists.” Moreover, in a turnabout from his previous view, Ales said that marketing the album “made it plain that Motown was more than just an R&B company.”
Ales and his team certainly found that the media was receptive to Finney; his acting career made for interesting interviews. “And there’s one song on there that I thoroughly loved, and so did Johnny Carson: ‘Those Other Men.’ Sinatra loved it, too, when Albert sang it on The Tonight Show. In fact, Johnny even called and asked if Albert would come back from his promotional tour and sing it another time on the show.”
Motown launched the album at Madame Wu’s upscale Chinese restaurant in Santa Monica. “It was a humongous party,” confirms Ales’ personal assistant at the time, Jeana Jackson, who remembers that Elton John was among the guests.
For its part, the British media gave mixed reviews to the album, although Motown’s U.K. press officer in 1977, Bob Fisher, says that everyone wanted to talk to Finney. “It was the most press I ever generated, and probably the most fun I ever had with a Motown artist.” Fisher remembers hanging out with Finney in the bars of London’s Mayfair, hearing marvellous stories of his working life, almost all unsuitable for public consumption.
Before the record was released, the actor performed some of the songs in concert to benefit a Manchester theatre’s building fund. “Vocally, it was at the middle-to-upper end of the holiday camp talent contest range,” wrote a critic for the Guardian newspaper. Ouch.
There were others whose opinion mattered more, such as Motown’s distributor in New Orleans. Ales took Finney to an Italian restaurant outside the city, owned by friends of that distributor, Henry Hildebrand, whose mother was also present. “She loved Albert, and when she said, ‘I saw you on television,’ he kissed her hand. She went crazy.” Hildebrand’s album order had been as optimistic as those of other distributors around the country, who were impressed by Finney’s enthusiasm and the 11-city promotional schedule.
Albert Finney’s Album reached 199 on Billboard’s 200-position Top LPs chart in September 1977, probably selling no better than Tony Martin’s Live At The Americana would have done, if released. “I loved Albert’s album,” Ales concludes. “Now I wonder if it hadn’t been on Motown, it probably would have been successful.”
Music notes: Tony Martin’s half-dozen released Motown tracks are digitally available as part of The Complete Motown Singles series. Some eviscerating comments about their musical value can be found on the always-worthwhile Motown Junkies site. Dazzle ’Em With Footwork and Albert Finney’s Album are absent from streaming services, but probably not impossible to locate in physical form.