Tony Martell, a veteran label exec and founder of the T.J. Martell Foundation, which has raised more than $270 million for cancer and AIDS research, passed away Sunday at the age of 90. While he enjoyed a long and successful career — most prominently at CBS Records and Sony Music, where he worked closely with Ozzy Osbourne, Joan Jett, Electric Light Orchestra, The O’Jays and many others — there’s no question that his greatest work was with the Foundation, which was founded in 1975 after his son T.J. died at the age of 21, after a battle with leukemia.
The Foundation has become one of the most prominent and important charities in the music industry, and its annual ceremony is one of the year’s major events. Tony was there on Oct. 18, just five weeks before his death, telling the audience that leukemia is no longer the number-one killer among young people, and speaking proudly about the Foundation’s considerable role in that milestone.
Below, Tony is remembered by a few of his many of his friends and colleagues.
“It saddened me to hear of my friend Tony Martell’s passing. Tony was the only record executive to believe in me when he signed me to Epic Records as a solo artist in 1980. He will be missed.” — Ozzy Osbourne?
“Tony was always a mensch of a guy, one of the few good ones where you kind of thought, ‘Are you really in the music industry?’ [Laughter]
“I met him in 1975 because he’d signed ELO and Jet Records [to Epic] when I was working for my father [manager/Jet founder Don Arden]. When Ozzy started [his solo career in 1980] people turned him down because there hadn’t been a lead singer that had left a band and become successful at that time, but Tony believed in him and signed him — and how many years later are we, and we’re still signed to Epic and it’s all down to Tony. I must add that Ozzy is truly, truly saddened by this.
“I don’t think even Tony at the time realized what he was starting — that [the T.J. Martell Foundation] would become so hugely successful. So many people who were ill reached out to Tony for advice and help — people in the industry that he didn’t even work with would call him and he’d give advice about doctors, about treatment. He’d made a promise to his son and he wanted to see that promise through, and he went on to help probably hundreds of people. People like him are so rare.” — Sharon Osbourne?
“Tony Martell was such a sweet man. Maybe he didn’t belong in this business. When no one would take an artist or manager’s call, Tony would always make time, and always did his best to help out talented people, no matter how down on their luck they were. He was so important, but never ‘self-important.’ He was one of the only major record company folks to believe in Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. We loved him so.
“When I [Laguna] was young, Tony’s son died. We started the T.J. Martell Foundation, starting with just the 2 of us, at ABC Dunhill. Most successful record moguls think they are more than they are — but they aren’t curing cancer. TONY WAS CURING CANCER!! He had mammoth success in music, but all that pales next to his accomplishments in making sure T.J. Martell did not die in vain. — With love and respect, Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna / Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
“I’ve known Tony Martell for 40 years and he’s never once wavered from the cause of eradicating leukemia and cancer. He leaves a broad, deep footprint and a lot of friends behind.” — Charlie Daniels
“Tony was a real music man and had a great knowledge of the industry, and he really galvanized it in supporting the Foundation and its strategy to find cures for cancer. He didn’t just have the support of Sony, the company he’d worked for — he had the support of most music labels, majors and indies, because the foundation has given hundreds of millions of dollars for research. He was the lighting rod that brought it all together. Obviously losing his son was the spark that started the Foundation, but he took it to a level that was just incredible — and it happened because of who he was.
“He had a lot of energy and was always willing to help people. I’ve had friends with cancer and he would willingly get on the phone with them and put them in touch with specialists. He was incredibly gracious with his time.
“Artists and people in the industry recognized the importance of the cause — cancer doesn’t discriminate and he got that message across. He was one of a kind — he was a lovely man and a good, good person who did incredible work.” — Kevin Kelleher, EVP/CFO, Sony Music
“I am deeply saddened by the news of Tony’s passing. He was a great man to a great many people in many great ways: A loving husband and father, a music industry leader, an icon in the world of charitable institutions, a ray of hope to those with cancer. To me he will best be remembered — and missed — as a cherished friend. The world was a much better place because he was in it.” — Kid Leo, longtime radio and record label executive and Vice Chairman, T.J. Martell Foundation
“I am happy that the music industry supported the T.J. Martell Foundation over the years. Tony was a great friend to me and he raised a lot of money to help find a cure for leukemia, cancer and AIDS. He will be extremely missed.” — Clarence Avant, former manager and label executive
“Tony Martell was a brilliant music man and extraordinary individual who did so much to change the lives of so many people. He inspired many in our business and worked tirelessly to help those affected by leukemia, cancer and AIDS. His passion and energy will be missed. Together we will mourn his passing yet celebrate his remarkable life.” — Tom Corson, president and COO, RCA Records
“Tony Martell’s unwavering and selfless commitment to helping others was his hallmark and the memory that I will honor.” — Avery Lipman, president/COO, Republic Records
“There’s nothing more admirable in life than helping those in need; Tony Martell will forever live in the hearts of those he touched. I’m honored to have known the man.” — Monte Lipman, chairman/CEO, Republic Records
“There was only one person in the music industry who actually did something important: Tony Martell! We worked together for many years and I have many wonderful memories and stories. I spoke to him four weeks ago and we planned to have a meal before Xmas. When I called him, all I said was hello — I didn’t identify myself. He said, ‘Hello, Harvey Leeds, remember I was behind you from day one!’ That was one of his favorite sayings.
“If Tony added you to his family, you were a lifer! If you ever enjoyed the music of Ozzy Osbourne, Gamble & Huff, The Isley Brothers, Weird Al Yankovic, The Romantics, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Survivor, Kansas, Steve Forbert, Johnny and Edgar Winter, David Johansen, Tabu Records, on and on — it was because of Tony, the ultimate mensch! — Harvey Leeds
“Tony was truly an inspiration to anyone who was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to work with him. What can you say about a man who spent every waking moment looking for ways to make good on his promise to his dying son? I am honored to have had the chance to be a part of the foundation he created, and see first-hand the amazing things that all of Tony’s hard work and determination have led to. We will miss him dearly and will do all we can to live up to the high standard that he set.” — Rick Krim, co-president, U.S., Sony ATV Music Publishing
“T.J. Martell, finally reunited with his father, probably said, ‘Thanks, Dad, for the good fight against cancer!’ So Tony is saying to us: ‘The battle goes on!’ ” — John Huie, CAA
“I was so fortunate to know Tony Martell. He had an amazing spirit and touched many people through the years. We must continue his legacy and carry the T.J. Martell Foundation forward so we may find a cure for these horrible diseases.” — Laura Heatherly, CEO, T.J. Martell Foundation