One of the undisputed kings of cool, Dean Martin is sometimes portrayed as a musical dilettante whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Despite his legendary laid back vocal style Martin took his recording career very seriously and as with his Rat Pack pal Frank Sinatra lengthy stints with Capitol and Reprise are evidence of a ferocious schedule as well as a life well lived.
For aficionados of masculine charm Dean represents an era when a sharp dressed man with an eye for the fairer sex was the very thing: his timeless hits include classics like “Sway”, “Volare ” (Nel Blue Di Pinto Di Blu), “That’s Amore”, “Memories Are Made of This”, “You’re Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You” and “King Of The Road” but his facility with a European, often Italian ballad, a finger snapping delivery and a warm bravado shouldn’t camouflage his ability to pick and choose the right material, the best producers and players in town, and the entire entertainment package fingers him as an American icon. Also famous for his movies, his love of golf and the bon mot – “If you drink, don’t drive – don’t even putt” and his Dry Martini recipe – “plenty of ice, plenty of gin and just point yer glass towards Italy” – Dino has had plenty of Hollywood acolytes. For example: Playboy called him “the coolest man who ever lived.” Elvis Presley worshipped him. “He was the coolest dude I’d ever seen, period,” recalled Stevie Van Zandt, adding, “He wasn’t just great at everything he did. To me, he was perfect.”
Born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio to an Italian-American family the young man had a real blue-collar upbringing. He worked in steel mills, had a spell as a boxer, flipped the aces in speakeasy establishments and learnt the art of blackjack and poker. Once he embarked on a singing career he styled himself after arch crooner Bing Crosby, using the less is more technique, majoring on force of personality and charisma to drive a song home. He met Sinatra in New York in the late 1940s and then built a nightclub act in Atlantic City with comedian Jerry Lewis, perfecting his timing and introducing audiences to a hyper version of 1950s street style.
Martin’s earliest work was for the small Diamond Records label in 1946 when he was already heading for his 30th birthday but Capitol Records, for whom he recorded 1948 – 1961, soon snapped him up. Dean’s easy listening with attitude came to the fore on Swingin’ Down Yonder (1955), a set of chestnuts warmed by a Southern sun. He made a bigger splash with the 1959 album Sleep Warm with arrangements by Pete King and orchestra conducted by Sinatra! This “beguiling set of lullabies for moderns” features “Dream a Little Dream, of Me”, a hit for Mama Cass and company in the next decade.
This Time I’m Swingin’!, orchestra conducted by Nelson Riddle is his first great album and greets the new decade under the banner ‘Full Dimensional Stereo’, for those who like their cultural signposts. Including “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You” and a cracking take on the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen vehicle “Imagination” this remains a suave period piece that is ripe for discovery and always looks impressive when strategically placed at the front of a discerning collection.
Dino: Italian Love Songs was a heartfelt throwback to his roots with the whiff of Roman streets and nods to operatic counter tenors declaiming “There’s No Tomorrow (O Sole Mio)” referencing and updating a tradition with aplomb. Lovely work. His last release on Capitol before joining Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records label is Cha Cha de Amor, notable for the Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussive skills of Carlos Mejia, Tony Reyes, Eddie Cano and Ramon Rivera. Listen to this with a crisp white open neck shirt, a tilted black Stetson Zephyr fedora and a decent cigar.
The globe trotting Martin gallivants to Paris for French Style (“Gigi, “La Vie En Rose”) then he’s in Espana and possibly Mexico for Dino Latino, a real cult curio arranged by Don Costa. Back in the USA we find Dean “Tex” Martin: Country Style and considering it’s still only 1963 and Beatlemania is about to poleaxe the States his choices are immaculate: Bobby Darin’s “Things”, Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”, Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’” for starters.
Enter producer Jimmy Bowen for Dean “Tex” Martin Rides Again with arrangements by Marty Paich and a liner eulogy from Merle Travis. Interpretations of Hank again, also of Eddy Arnold and Harlan Howard, maintain the easy paced countrypolitan approach.
Straddling the adult, teen and country market had built Martin’s reputation to the point where Dream with Dean made a dent. Here’s where “Everybody Loves Somebody” emerges and the lounge singing is taken to new heights. Once “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You” had been re-recorded by Bowen, Martin found himself firmly as a triple-threat national star of stage, screen and television. Dean Martin Hits Again and the excellent (Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You were fine pop crossovers. The latter includes a timely version of Roger Miller’s hobo classic “King of the Road”, which Martin also makes his own, plus the pleasantly romantic “Red Roses for a Blue Lady”.
Dean’s ’65 Houston album is one for the connoisseur since it kicks off with Lee Hazlewood’s title cut and then pitches Dino in a swinging hipster persona. That break with the formula resulted in the artist releasing five albums in 1966, starring in three movies and hosting his own TV show. The Hit Sound of… is another essential discovery with more Hazlewood and nifty Billy Strange arrangements.
Happiness is… features a splendid version of Hank Cochran’s song for Patsy Cline, retitled “He’s Got You”, then Welcome to My World has the signature piece, “Little Ole Wine Drinker, Me.” So even at the height of psychedelia our man stuck to his tippling.
However, Gentle on My Mind is easy listening bliss with John Hartford’s track, Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, Hardin’s “April Again” and Bobby Russell’s “Honey” showing Dean in a more progressive light. Having discovered that his voice was naturally suited to interpreting Kris Kristofferson he added his inimitable styling to “For the Good Times” (on the album of that name) and bossed the songwriter’s “Kiss the World Goodbye” on Dino (1972).
The Bowen years throw up many interesting moments thereafter: try Dean’s version of “You Better Move On” or the bluesy country pop of “Since I Met You Baby” on the excellent The Nashville Sessions (1983). That was to be his last complete recording session, bar the rare on vinyl MCA single “L.A. Is My Home”.
With an artist of this caliber the live and collected works are failsafe. Live from Las Vegas and Live from Lake Tahoe are showstoppers and there are many classy compilations to delve into. Both The Best of… and Dino: The Essential… went Platinum. But for real investigation try any of The Bear Family’s career-encompassing projects or our box set via Hip-O Records, Collected Cool. This 4-CD marvel marks the compact disc debut of the Lake Tahoe concert and features several dozen tracks from his years recording for Capitol and Reprise. The set spans Martin’s nearly half-century career, ranging from late-’40s hits including “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” to the 1985 single “L.A. Is My Home.” Collected Cool also features a DVD of Dean Martin Live in London, filmed in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. The concert aired on Showtime but has never been available on home video.
Curl up in front of a fire with any of these, mix yourself a Dry one and grab some Dean Martin movie action: we’d suggest The Young Lions (also starring Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift), the classic Rio Bravo – Howard Hawks directs John Wayne, Martin and company in a film rated the second greatest Western of all time in Sight and Sound’s 2012 critic poll! Ocean’s 11 is the archetypal Rat Pack flick but don’t forget The Sons of Katie Elder, Bandolero! (Dean seduces Raquel Welch) and 5 Card Stud, also starring Robert Mitchum.
That’s Dino – sheer class, total cool. What a dood…
Words: Max Bell