It’s not fair, really. Dean Martin came by it naturally. For years, people paid money to watch him just be himself. For forty years, millions bought his records, records he made with the minimum of effort. It’s just not right. Me? I gotta work and slave every day. Dino? Got dressed, stood in front of the mic, made a million dollars. This is not even taking into account his work in film or on television. Unlike his paisan, Francis, Dean was perhaps at his best on live television and this is what sustained him through the 1960s. But he was no slouch in the record-selling department either and that’s what we’re concerning ourselves with today.
I have issued these “guides” in the past and the point of them is to pinpoint a singer’s singing. Sounds obvious, I know, but sometimes the icon can overshadow the artist. Everyone knows Dean Martin. Those of us who roll in the past, digging the dapper vibe, the lounge scene and enjoying all things vintage revere this regular joe from the steel town of Steubenville, Ohio. And not just us retro types; most everyone is familiar with Dean Martin or at least with the persona that is most often put forward. Bon vivant, hard drinking, easy livin’ Dino. Casual in the movies, straight man with excellent comedic timing. Also a welcomed face in a dramatic role or a western. And his records are well known as well, particularly his Italianate fare like “That’s Amore” and the many other love songs he offered in that vein. But sometimes what gets lost in an artist’s persona is the art itself. These guides seek to rectify that and this one in particular is meant to illuminate the enduring charm and casual brilliance of the recordings of Dean Martin. As I suggested earlier, Martin did not put much effort into his recording career. In fact, he often looked at it like a sort of necessary evil. But like the charm of his variety show lay in the fact of his unpreparedness, so the appeal of a song by Dino is in the aural impression that it just came out that way. While you can often hear that Sinatra is striving for – and usually attaining – perfection, you can also detect that Dean Martin just simply sang like that, whether in a recording studio, in his living room, goofing on the set or standing in the light rough to the right of the third fairway.
More than his voice or his casual way, his music often conjures a certain mood and it captures a time and place. Dino’s work with Capitol Records is to the sound of Fifties pop vocal singing what Elvis is to Fifties rock vocal singing. Never striving for the heights, Martin’s sound was engaging and infinitely accessible. The same can be said for his later recordings for Reprise Records. And that brings me to the essence of this guide to Dean’s music. Dino had success with many light pop singles during his time with Capitol and he also issued LPs that were nowhere near as profound as Sinatra’s but that contained a pleasing sound nonetheless. Then in 1960 Frank Sinatra split from Capitol where he had reignited his recording career and started his own label, Reprise. He soon began to lure many of his friends to the label adding Sammy Davis, Jr., Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Jo Stafford to the roster. Eventually Dean made the move as well. There he would eventually settle in and assemble a team that would ably guide his music and help him dominate the early days of the Adult Contemporary chart. But Part 1 starts at the beginning, at that celebrated intersection in the heart of the entertainment capital of the world.
Hollywood & Vine
As we all know, Dean Martin was one half of one of the most successful comedy duos ever. With partner Jerry Lewis, Martin broke attendance records in night clubs and featured in over a dozen films. They also signed as a duo to Capitol Records on August 20, 1948 and 3 weeks later the boys cut their first sides for the label. In November of that year, Dean would make his first solo recordings for Capitol. Between 1949 and the summer of ’53, Dean released delightful 45s that found their way onto the fledgling music charts. Wonderful tunes like “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” and “You Belong to Me”. An August, ’53 recording session yielded one of the two songs most associated with Dean. Recorded for the Martin & Lewis film The Caddy, “That’s Amore” was an Italian-flavoured ditty that instantly appealed to the masses and suited their impression of Dean Martin. The song was Dean’s first gold record, reached #2 on the pop charts and was later nominated for an Academy Award.
Martin continued cutting sides for Capitol, good ones that did well on the charts; “I’d Cry Like a Baby” and “Sway” are two of the better ones. Dean finally reached the top of the charts in 1955 with the charming “Memories Are Made of This”, a song the featured prominent backing vocals by the Easy Riders. This was the first song I played in the first house my wife and I bought, the one we still live in today. Notably for me, his very next single was “Innamorata”, the song that was playing when our first child was born. Dean Martin recorded most all of his singles at Capitol with bandleader Dick Stabile who had also served as music director for Martin & Lewis. You’ve all seen Dick Stabile in the film White Christmas. He is Rosemary Clooney’s bandleader when she leaves the Columbia Inn and goes to work at the Carousel Club. When she sees Bing in the audience at her opening night, she pleads with Dick to play anything but “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” but he insists she do it.
On the album front, after two pedestrian entries, Dean offered Pretty Baby in 1957. A charming record with a clever cover, Pretty Baby offers a varied selection of light fare delivered in casual Dino style. The thing I like about it is the fact that it is not a “concept album”. At about this time, Sinatra was pioneering the idea of a common thread running through the songs on an LP; all sad songs for a “torch album”, all upbeat for a “swingin’ album”. I have no problem with the idea, really, but I sometimes feel like it negates half your album collection. If you are in the mood for a mellow record, half the albums on your shelf don’t exist for you. Conversely, sometimes I can really appreciate a well-sequenced record containing some finger-snappers, some laments and, heck, even a swaying, mid-tempo number. (This is why Come Fly With Me is one of my favourite Sinatra albums). Conductor and arranger Gus Levene provides fine settings for Dean on Pretty Baby and the album features the title track, the jaunty opener, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and the gentle gem “Once in a While”.
Speaking of concept albums, Dean’s next LP is notable. Sleep Warm follows a “bedtime” concept and all the songs have either “dream” or “sleep” in the title. This is a delightful record, perfect for dimly lit rooms and mellow times. Perhaps the most significant thing about this album is that the sessions were conducted by Frank Sinatra, one of the half-dozen times he filled that post in his career. Also, I somehow found this record on CD years ago.
Dean recorded three more albums for Capitol, all fine records and each, actually, devoted to a particular theme. A Winter Romance is a record I hang on the wall of my study every Christmas; great cover art. But it’s also one of those “Christmas” records that is not necessarily devoted to Yuletide. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas”, yes, but also “Canadian Sunset” and “The Things We Did Last Summer”. The three originals are excellent; the title track, “Out in the Cold Again” and “It Won’t Cool Off”.
This Time I’m Swingin’! is a fantastic record, owing mostly to the wonderful charts of Nelson Riddle. This record contains Dean Martin’s finest work at Capitol, songs like “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You”, used over the opening credits of Swingers, the movie that changed my life. “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” was also recorded at these sessions and released as a single later. This tune from Ocean’s 11 (1960) is a classic of this idiom.
Martin would wrap his time at Hollywood & Vine with a record of Neapolitan favourites, thus cementing his status as the foremost crooner of Italian melodies. Dino: Italian Love Songs did much to link Dino with the songs of his homeland, so much so that Dean Martin quickly became synonymous with Italian crooning. No one did it better but I don’t like how often he is associated exclusively with these types of songs. There is simply too much more to Dean Martin. Stick with maybe Lou Monte for a singer who is “strictly” of the Italian style. The Italian Love Songs album though is sumptuous. The unheralded Gus Levene is on hand again providing lush backgrounds for Dean’s smooth singing. The bulk of the record is comprised of Italian melodies that have been given English words and it contains a re-recording of the lovely “Return to Me” but his recording of this song for single release three years prior is superior.
Dean recorded an album of cha-chas that was not released until he had left Capitol Records and had already released an album on his new label. Cha Cha de Amor is another fine program of songs arranged by Nelson Riddle and contains “My One and Only Love”, one of Dino’s finest offerings while at Capitol.
Dean Martin was casual about many things in his life and career. He didn’t waste much time exploring his craft, be it singing or acting. He never really reached for the stars or felt he had anything to prove. When he wanted to break from Jerry and show he could find success on his own, he did so, first with his recordings. Then when he wanted to show he could play a serious role, he went after a part in The Young Lions opposite two Method actors – Brando and Monty Clift – and held his own. The same could be said for his portrayal of a pathetic drunk in Rio Bravo. And when his best bud in show business said he had started his own record label, come join me, Martin wisely saw a cushy scenario that found him in tight with the guy that ran the company. Making the move to Reprise Records was a no-brainer for Dean Martin.
Dean’s Top 10 on Capitol
10. “I’d Cry Like a Baby” (1954 – #21 Pop) — Just a perfect example of the lovely, light singles Dean released while at Hollywood & Vine. Taken at a mid-tempo sauntering gait, Dino really caresses the lyrics, sounding like he’s singing with a big smile on his face. Nice, lazy solos from trombone and guitar.
9. “Volare (Nel blu dipinto di blu)” (1958 – #12 Pop) — Perhaps the quintessential Italian pop song of the 1950’s. Domenic Modugno’s original version was the winner of the Grammy for both Record and Song of the Year when it won at the inaugural ceremony in 1959. Dean sends the ladies into paroxysms of joy with a refrain in the middle delivered in his native tongue.
8. “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” (1960) — A slam-bang, brassy classic of this idiom. Legendary for its use in the swingin’est flick of them all, Ocean’s 11. Dino sang this in a different arrangement a couple of times in that film backed by the Red Norvo Quintet. Dig the version on the Capitol Collectors Series CD that starts with some studio chatter; “Alright, let ’em have it!” Indeed.
7. “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” (1960) — Nelson Riddle provides a fantastic chart for this example of what Dean did best at Capitol; strolling through a joyous mid-tempo song. Listen how Dean kind of mumbles the title just before the brass comes in for a wonderful eight-bar statement in the middle of the song; dig how the horns fade then blast again announcing Dino’s return for an undulating take on “I’ll always love ya, darlin’, come what may”.
6. “Sway” (1954 – #15 Pop) — Dino Latino, indeed. Years before Dean released an album with that title, he laid down this little ditty with the swaying beat and lyrics by Norman Gimbel, writer of the English words to many bossa nova classics. Dean seems to give the verses an urgency and then he takes the bridge more leisurely. Lovely strings and guitar in the mid-section.
5. “Return to Me” (1958 – #4 Pop) — “Volare”, “That’s Amore”, sure but this romantic gem is the crown jewel of all the Italian pop songs of the 1950’s. There is a celestial choir employed here that lends the song an ethereal quality and takes it to a misty netherworld. The mandolinos play while Dean implores his love to hurry back. The pay-off comes when the choir sings “Return to me…”, the song drops out and Dino returns for a Neapolitan refrain. You will often hear the version Dean recorded two years later for his album Dino: Italian Love Songs but this earlier single release is superior. You can hear the difference in the way Martin sings “return”. This tune was co-written by Canadian Carmen Lombardo, Guy’s brother.
4. “My One and Only Love” (1962) — Another example of Dean being provided a delightful chart for his delicate tones. Martin may not get the love he deserves for his romantic balladry; certainly though in his day the public ate it up. Recorded for Cha Cha de Amor at Dean’s last sessions for Capitol, “My One and Only Love” contains a feather-lite chart from Nelson Riddle. This tune often features on my playlists devoted to lazy summer afternoons. Such gentle percussion, swelling strings and Dean’s somnambulant vocal. Absolutely divine.
3. “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You” (1960) — Smooth, smooth, smooth. This tune is all about the reeds. Running through this list makes me think that Dean Martin recorded some of the most effortlessly divine recordings of the 1950’s. Listen to the instrumental section Nelson constructed for the middle. Such a bellwether for me; still can’t believe that when I sat in the theatre to see Swingers (1996) for the first time and this played over the opening credits, I didn’t know who was singing.
2. “Once in a While” (1957) — All through his career, Dean Martin has often been saddled with almost-overwhelming background voices and here on the Pretty Baby album it almost detracts from the proceedings. But things are saved by the charm of Dean’s voice and Gus Levene’s fine chart, particularly for this song. Listen how the orchestra answers the chorus in mid-tune but the real money is the way Dean sings four words; “I know that I”. Interesting to note that Dean revisited this tune in a much different setting and used it as the title track of the last album he made for Reprise.
1. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (1960) — Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Nelson Riddle. Muted brass chirps as the tune starts gently. Dino sidles in, languorous as all get out. The tune starts to swell and we arrive at a glorious blast of horns. This is Dean Martin in the setting that suited him best at Capitol and he is splendidly insouciant and effortlessly captivating.
- Furmanek, Bob. Capitol Collectors Series liner notes. Capitol Records. (1989)
- Tosches, Nick. Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. Doubleday. (1992)