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Popular gospel singer raised in North Dakota claimed he made 'a bargain with God'

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Tony Fontane, a popular entertainer and avowed atheist who became a gospel singer after a serious automobile accident in 1957.

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The cover for Tony Fontane's "The Hymns My Mother Sang" as seen on the album's Discogs page. Special to The Forum

Did You Know That...

A biographer wrote, “Between 1958 and 1974, Tony Fontane was perhaps the most famous gospel singer in the world.” What makes this statement very interesting is that prior to 1957, Fontane was an avowed atheist, someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God.

From the late 1940s to 1957, Fontane was a popular singer and entertainer, recording a number of hit songs and frequently performing in Las Vegas clubs, or on nationally aired television and radio programs.

In 1957, he was involved in a serious automobile accident that almost took his life. Fontane was in a coma for 30 days and, he later wrote, “that while he was in his coma, he had a vision that God came to him and offered him one more chance.” Fontane added that he made a bargain with God that, in the future, he would only perform and record gospel and spiritual songs.

Anthony “Tony” Joseph Trankina, later known as Tony Fontane, was born Sept. 18, 1925, in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Giuseppe “Joseph” and Raphaella “Rae” (Galluzzi) Trankina. His father was the supervisor of section gangs for the Michigan Central Railroad.

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The lives of the Trankina family members changed dramatically in 1929, when Joseph “gave his life to Christ.” This decision appeared to have had its roots from an incident that occurred a few years earlier, and it involved Tony’s 2-year-old cousin who was visiting the Trankinas at the time.

Joe assigned four members of his crew to monitor traffic at the rear of a train. Instead, the men in the caboose were engaged in “drinking and playing cards and not paying attention to traffic behind the train.” As “the train started slowly backing up without any flag man,” Tony’s young cousin wandered right behind the moving train and was killed. “Joe was absolutely livid” and got his gun to kill the four men in the caboose for allowing this to happen. Just then, a railroad superintendent showed up, talked to Joe, and had him “kneel down on the railroad tracks and pray.” It has been reported that this “experience changed the course of Joe’s entire life.”

In 1930, Joe quit his job with the railroad and moved his family to Chicago where he worked at his family’s produce business, J. Trankina & Co., during the day, and attended the Moody Bible Institute at night. Early in 1935, “Joe was awarded a degree in Divinity, Theology, and Philosophy from the Lighthouse Bible College” and, in February, Joe loaded his family and belongings into his pickup and headed to Cando, in north-central North Dakota.

“When the Trankinas arrived in Cando, it was 51 degrees below zero.” They had no house, very little food and no church building or members. Although everything looked very bleak, Pastor Joe believed that things would work out. I think it is also important to point out that this was the time of the Great Depression, and very few people in the community had any extra money.

Through hard work and determination, Joe convinced several farmers to meet each Sunday at their homes, and slowly membership of his congregation grew. The farmers had no available money, but many of them had surplus produce that they gave to the Trankina family.

Joe also did missionary work with the Chippewa Indians living on the nearby Turtle Mountains Reservation. Often, some of the Chippewa were near starvation and he would give them some of the meager provisions he had, and the Trankinas were forced into living in dire poverty.

“The Trankina children resented this because they felt poor and were sometimes ostracized in their schools. However, they excelled in school and that helped them fit in.” Tony became a well-known singer, and “he captured first place in the boys high school voice event at the North Dakota State Music Contest held in Grand Forks.” As a result, Tony “was offered a musical scholarship at Michigan State University.”

Believing that his singing ability was a way out of his poverty situation, Tony joined a dance band without informing his family and a “statewide alarm was issued” regarding his disappearance. After six weeks, he was returned to his home in Cando.

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In 1942, Joe moved his family to Grand Forks where he hoped to open a mission. Tony had graduated from high school and decided to spend some time in Drayton, where I have been informed he had some relatives. Later that year, Tony rejoined his family in Grand Forks where his father had founded the Grand Forks Mission and Service Center.

Tony turned down the scholarship offer from Michigan State and instead decided to pursue a career as a professional singer. To do that, Tony moved back to Chicago and stayed with relatives, hoping to make it big. When that failed to materialize, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1943. Much of his time in the service was spent singing for the troops in USO shows.

Toward the end of his enlistment in 1945, it is reported that Tony had a bit role in a musical-comedy motion picture, "Tars and Spars," about romance in the Coast Guard. Following his discharge in 1945, Tony adopted the stage name Tony Fontane and “moved to New York City, looking for work as a singer.”

Initially, Tony did not have much success, but ultimately, he did get the opportunity to audition for the show "Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour," one of the most popular programs on radio. The winners did not receive any money, but for a number of contestants, it did prove to be a springboard for success in the entertainment industry.

Tony’s performance was outstanding and he was invited back for an encore. This had never occurred before for an individual performer. Over a decade earlier, Bowes invited a quartet, the Hoboken Four, back for an encore. The lead singer of that group was Frank Sinatra.

Tony moved back to Chicago and because of his success on the "Amateur Hour," he began to get many offers. He was given his own program, "The Tony Fontane Show," on WGN in Chicago and was the regular singer along with Paula Ray on "Top Tunes With Trendler" on the Mutual Broadcasting network. He was also the regular feature singer on "The Eddie Bracken Show," a nationally broadcast program on CBS.

Although his career was really starting to take off, much of Tony’s concerns were focused on what was happening to his mother back in Grand Forks. Rae, his mother, was fighting cancer that had begun in her breast and later spread to other parts of her body, metastasizing in her spine. By 1946, she was confined to her bed where she languished in pain for six years before dying, at the age of 47, in 1952.

Tony, who was raised in a household where prayers were of the utmost priority, would have kept his mother in his prayers, asking God to show his mercy, but her condition kept deteriorating. To Tony, I believe that this did not make any sense, how a “loving and merciful God” would allow this to happen to such a kind and caring, God-loving person, who had devoted her entire adult life to serving the Lord.

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At first, he may have reasoned that God didn’t hear his prayers or wasn’t listening. He then may have come to the conclusion that God didn’t care. Finally, I concluded that it was his belief that God did not exist, and Tony became an avowed atheist.

We will continue the story of Tony Fontane next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.

Related Topics: MUSICNORTH DAKOTAHISTORY
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