Friday, February 15, 2013

Lennie Martin

Lennie Martin from Robbee Records

Lennie Martin was one of the key players in mid-fifties to early-sixties Pittsburgh pop music scene. His JEM label broke the ice for local R&B artists in the City, he was the A&R man for and part owner of Calico Records who arranged the orchestration behind the Skyliners, and was co-owner of both Robbee Records and World Records, Pittsburgh's first label to push beyond regional acts.

He was born Rinaldo Marino in 1916, and was educated at Duquesne University. He was a pianist, arranger and composer, and found work as a staff musician for KDKA and WCAE radio. Martin became an orchestra leader and highly sought after as a jingle writer for ads.

Martin entered the industry side in 1955 when he formed JEM Records, based out of his Carlton House office.

In 1955, the Smoothtones recorded two sides for Martin's JEM label, both written by Alfred Gaitwood, who would later hit it big with the Cuff Links' "Guided Missile." The 45 was “Bring Back Your Love” b/w “No Doubt About It” (JEM #412), backed by the Walt Harper Orchestra. The wax was released in June 1955. As a historical note, it's thought that slab of vinyl was the first song by a black R&B vocal group issued on a Pittsburgh label.

Also on the label were local artists The Wright Brothers and Patty Troy, who would record both separately and together for JEM.

As the A&R man for Calico (he was also part owner), Martin took a trip to New York City's Capitol Studios with Bill Lawrence and Joe Rock for Skyliners "Since I Don't Have You" session. Martin arranged the lush chart, later cited by wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector as an early influence on his arrangements. He and band manager Rock shared the musical credits for all the early Skyliner songs released on Calico.

Founded to promote Pittsburgh music, Calico was driven by the Skyliners success. They also recorded the Donnybrooks from Canonsburg, Chuck Johnson and Walt Maddox. After a two year run, Martin closed shop and moved on to a new venture after Rock took the Skyliners to Columbia Pictures Colpix label.

Martin and Lou Guarino founded the Robbee Record Label in 1960, named after Martin's youngest son, Robert. He didn't forget the rest of the family; his Mary Jo Publishing company was named after his wife, and Jeff-Paul Music was named after his eldest, Jeffrey. The Robbee label even tried to break out the region with a distribution deal with Hollywood's Liberty Records, which had Henry Mancini among its artists.

Robbee had one song that charted: Marcy Jo's "Ronnie" (#81 Billboard, #64 Cash Box/1961 R-110). The label, like Calico, was heavy with local artists - Lugee (Lou Christie) and the Lions, Holidays, La Rells, Chapelaires, Honorable Fats Wilson and the South Hills' Four Seasons recorded for Robbee.

Martin catered to the sports crowd, too, with Benny Benack's "Beat 'Em Bucs" (1960/R-108) and Pirates' pitcher ElRoy Face (he fronted a small jazz club on Grant Street that as memory serves was called The Bandbox, a few doors away from Martin's offices at the Carlton House) and catcher Hal Smith as part of  Robbee's stable of artists. Heck, Lennie even recorded "La Femme" with his Orchestra for the label.

In 1963, Martin and Guarino formed a new label, World Records. They had some local talent, like Lou Christie, the Laurels & Joe Negri, and with Guarino's discovery of English act Chad and Jeremy, the duo hoped to finally make Pittsburgh a destination point in the industry. That never quite happened, though Guarino is still in the industry and running WAE Records, short for World Artists Entertainment, today's remnant of World Records.

Unfortunately, World Records and Pittsburgh didn't have Lennie Martin around long. He died at West Penn Hospital after a long illness in 1963 at the age of 46 and was buried at Mt. Carmel cemetery.

Lennie Martin left behind quite a legacy for such a short spell - he owned parts of four labels, orchestrated the Skyliners, was a vocal coach to a lot of young area talent, and his jingles (he was said to have produced thousands of them) cemented media branding and moved lots of product on TV and radio.

Marcy Jo - "Ronnie" (1961)

No comments: