Country Crooner: Your Guide to Dean Martin Part 2

From the outset, you can tell looking back that Reprise didn’t know at first what to do with Dean. His first sessions and singles were lightweight, more Italian songs or just plain silly; the titles range from “Senza Fine” and “Mama Rosa” to “Baby-O” and “Tik-a-Tee, Tik-a-Tay”. And his first Reprise LPs were more concept albums – what theme can Dean present this time? French Style came first followed by Dino Latino and then two records devoted to the new smooth country singing being plied by Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, records on which he was half-jokingly billed as Dean “Tex” Martin. What about an album of songs, just songs? Then in March of 1964, Dean spent four days in the studio with his pianist Ken Lane and a clutch of top-flight session men. The results changed everything.

Dean with Ken Lane – looking like Lloyd Nolan – in the studio.

The idea was to sing some of the old songs in quiet settings, a real fireside record. At home choosing the program, Dean and Ken had settled on eleven tunes but struggled to find a twelfth. Lane recalled “Everybody Loves Somebody”, a song he had written in 1948 for Frank Sinatra. Ken started playing it and Dean’s wife, Jeanne, pricked up her ears. The tune had been a favourite of hers for years; that cinched it. Dean and Ken – seen for years on Dean’s variety show – were joined in the studio by jazz stalwarts Barney Kessel, Red Mitchell and Irv Cottler and together this conglomerate laid down an exquisite program of gentle singing and playing.

It seems the story is true that Dean Martin loathed the new sounds of the Beatles and Co. and made no secret of it to his son, Dino, Jr., a Beatles fan. “I’m gonna knock your little pallies off the charts”, he told the boy. “Everybody Loves Somebody” was given a more robust arrangement and an orchestra was added to a second recording Dean made in April of ’64. Released in its fresh new clothes in June, “Everybody Loves Somebody” did indeed replace “A Hard Day’s Night” at the top of the charts. In August, the original recording of the song would be released on Dream With Dean, a record that would go on to become one of Dean’s two finest albums with Reprise.

The success of “Everybody Loves Somebody” resulted in Dean Martin finding the sound he would employ for the rest of his recording career. That sound basically starts with producer Jimmy Bowen. I wanted to dish on Bowen in a recent article on Bing Crosby but I had to restrain myself from digressing. Bowen got his start as a rockabilly singer (“I’m Stickin’ With You”, #14 US Pop, 1957) before moving into production. Bowen became a prolific, hit-making producer for scores of artists. Bowen brought in arranger Ernie Freeman, an artist I did discourse on a bit in my article on the Christmas music of Andy Williams, and together the two would shepherd Dino through his time at Reprise Records and indeed through the rest of the time Dean Martin spent making records. Bowen and Freeman created a template for Dean’s music based on the lightning they had trapped with “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Dean, Jimmy and Ernie, it can be argued, originated Adult Contemporary music with the countrypolitan sound they created for Dean. At Reprise, Dean became a country crooner. He still sang in the same inimitable way and there was always an orchestra and chorus on hand in the studio but – as was the new style at the time – rock drumming was employed and country songs were polished up and given a pop/rock treatment.

Dean’s albums through 1964 and 1965 all followed the same format. It was a clever, crowd-pleasing mixture of countrypolitan and some hits of the day and they all sounded – well, I don’t want to say “the same” but let’s say that Dean Martin adopted an instantly recognizable sound. It was successful, too. Between ’64 and ’67, Martin scored 12 Top 40 Pop hits and virtually owned the nascent AC charts; in my article he was easily declared the champ of this new listing. Every single of Dean’s that charted on the Easy Listening chart landed in the Top 13, including five Number Ones. The Adult Contemporary chart was made for singers like Dean Martin.

Dean in the game room of his Beverly Hills home, 1966. Photo by John R. Hamilton.

Emblematic of the quintessential Dean Martin song at Reprise was “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On”, a hillbilly song from the 40s written and recorded by Hank Locklin. Also “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You”, another old country number and “Houston”, a more recent song that had been written by Lee Hazlewood. Later, in 1967, Dean scored with two songs he had recorded in ’64, “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” and “In the Misty Moonlight”. All these songs featured delightful combinations of orchestra, a contemporary sound and Dean’s relaxed vocal delivery.

Dean’s albums at Frank’s label I find fascinating and infinitely charming. They generally contained the most recent hit of Dean’s but it is the songs the records were filled out with that make them so interesting and such prototypical emblems of the era in which they were released. (Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You, with those thorny brackets in the title, is by far the best record from this string in the mid-Sixties; as I’ve said, Dream With Dean is also his best Reprise LP but it contains a vastly different sound than Dean employed the rest of the decade. Remember Me is loaded with recognizable country classics delivered in the smooth Bowen/Freeman countrypolitan style. Present are Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”, the Jim Reeves’ classic “Welcome to My World”, “Walk on By”, “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” and others. No filler, every track enjoyable.

The closer of this record, “Bumming Around”, is a precursor to a vibe Dean put forth in his last few albums of the 60s. The hits began to dry up and the rich vein of music provided for Dean proved unsustainable. So, there came to be a decidedly world-weariness that crept in to the recordings. The sad fact is that Dean Martin began not to care one iota for recording music. It became a necessary evil and the appeal of the music shifted from lightness to a more pensive aura. I connect “Bumming Around” – “I’m as free as the breeze and I do as I please. Just bummin’ around” – to the New Mexican setting of The Silencers and then to a couple of songs from Dean’s later LP, I Take a Lot of Pride In What I Am, released in August of 1969. The Merle Haggard-penned title track is cinematic in nature and reflects sentiments shared in “Bumming Around”. Dean sings of hobo jungles and growing up a loner with no folks, sleeping on benches and working with road gangs. In a nice touch, he mentions looking for his daddy’s name in the phone book in every town he enters.

Dean relaxing in his dressing room while making The Silencers, 1966. Note the analysis of the golf swing on the wall. Photo by John R. Hamilton.

In “Make It Rain”, a cynical Dean schools a lady of society. Another lyric I could see filmed, the story here is about a regular joe who somehow gets involved with a wealthy woman. The singer knows the score, understands that the woman looks down on guys like him and cannot relate to common people at all – but he does say that it might be kicks to be her fool for awhile. He makes things plain; “While you’re playin’ with my mind I’ll be payin’ with your money, honey,
as long as your account can stand the drain”
. William Ruhlmann at has it right when he says that songwriter Billy Mize borrowed much from the word-heavy style of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind”, another song from this mini era that Dean offered as the title track of a Reprise LP. The clever usage of the title “Make It Rain” refers to the singer’s ability to maintain his sanity and his individuality in spite of the woman’s feeling that her position and wealth enable her to make him jump to her tune; “I can tread water, babe, as long as you think you can make it rain”.

The Dean Martin of the late Sixties, then, takes me to a dusty path next to a railroad track. I’m an outsider who has a different way of looking at things and this has placed me independent of society. I travel unencumbered and get in adventures. Think so many Seventies TV shows that followed this premise, like Then Came Bronson. This may just be my take but I feel like it is yet another perfectly rounded pearl of joy that Dean Martin hands you with his recordings. Just one more feeling his music can provide.

There’s something about these later LPs. They are so very of their time. Listening to them now so many years later they serve as a portal of sorts; a door through which I pass in order to really experience the middle Sixties as much as is possible. This music conjures up images in my mind, memories. I recall being in the home of my great aunt. She and my other great aunts always seemed to be divorced, widowed or otherwise alone. I can picture their homes; mid-Seventies decor. While the times I can remember may be a decade removed from the release dates of Dean’s Reprise recordings, they still take me back to my childhood. This surely was the music that a whole generation of housewives listened to in the middle of the day. Some music is timeless but while these records of Dean’s are still a joy to listen to, they are just so wonderfully ephemeral.

From The Dean Martin Show. Dean would often get serious and sing a nice tune while sitting on the dimly-lit couch.

Sadly, Dean Martin’s recording career just petered out. He simply lost interest. And of course there was less of a market for his type of singing in the mid-1970’s. The final albums are unique in their mediocrity and incongruity. Issued in the spring of 1973 was Sittin’ On Top of the World that featured old-timey arrangements of ancient songs. The record was the first Dean Martin album in ten years not to make the charts at all. Next was You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, a dull, short album that had Dean inexplicably returning to four songs he had recorded for Dream With Dean. Once in a While had an even more antiquated mood, so much so that, recorded in ’74, Reprise wouldn’t release it, seeing no market for it. Four years later, the recordings were sweetened to make them more palatable to audiences in the late Seventies but it was for naught. Once in a While was the last album I needed to complete my Dean Martin album collection. It proved hard to find and it became one of the few records I’ve ever bought online. It was an ignominious end to a successful recording career at Reprise Records.

Jimmy Bowen coaxed Dino back into the studio one last time in 1983. Funny to think that swingin’ Dean Martin, finger-snappin’, croonin’ Dino settled in so comfortably to country music in the second half of his career. Bowen took Martin down to Nashville to work with some mainstays of the recording studios in Music City. For the record that would become The Nashville Sessions, Jimmy brought in Elvis World regulars Reggie Young and David Briggs and had Martin duetting with Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. The record is listless though certainly unique.

None of Dean’s last 6 singles for Reprise charted on the Pop charts. Two singles were issued from The Nashville Sessions, a duet with Twitty, “My First Country Song” that reached #35 on the US Country charts and a cover of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby”, a song for which Dean filmed a video.

Courtesy The Red Car Channel

In 1985, when Dean was 68, he released his last single, “L.A. is My Home”, a curiosity that reached no charts. When my wife and I visited Dean’s hometown of Steubenville in 2018, we ate in one of Martin’s favourite haunts, the Naples Spaghetti House. When I walked in the door, “L.A. is My Home” was playing. I had never heard it before.

Here’s me on the front stoop of the eatery Dino favoured.

Dean’s Top 10 on Reprise

10. “I’m Gonna Change Everything” (1963) — Originally the opener of Dean’s second album of country pop, this was later included on his 3rd-best LP for Reprise, The Door is Still Open to My Heart, released near the end of ’64. Despite this curious re-hashing, the song is a delight. Originally recorded by Jim Reeves the previous year, on this tune you can hear the worst of the vocal choruses they stuck Dean with but the song rises above. Good lyrics; any vintage song that mentions records and the hi-fi is OK by me.

9. “Everybody Loves Somebody” (1964 – #1 US Pop, US AC) — The hit recording is nice and I include it here because of its weight in music history. But I honestly prefer the fireside version Dean recorded with his small group for Dream With Dean. It really is one of those songs that benefits from a stripped-down arrangement. Ken Lane plays celeste and a light-fingered piano. Late in the song Dean sings the bridge with just Barney Kessel strumming lightly. Sinatra has his saloon songs – desolate late night laments – but Dino excels with gentle nocturnal whisperings like this.

8. “April Again” (1968 – #105 US Pop, #9 US AC) — After a flurry of LP releases – 5 in 1966 – 16 months had elapsed since the last when Reprise issued Gentle On My Mind in late 1968. “April Again”, the last song on the record, was the first of three singles released from the LP. Written by Presley’s pianist and arranger Glen Hardin, “April Again” finds Dino in a pensive, regretful mood and the whole tenor of the song is indicative of what is best about him at this time. The abrupt ending seems somehow fitting.

Provided to YouTube by Legacy Recordings

7. “In the Misty Moonlight” (1967 – #46 US Pop, #1 US AC) — The quintessential single from Dean’s time at Reprise. The lovely jaunty opening marked by the fluttering wings of a flute and the perfect tempo never fail to bring a smile. After the ever-present choir takes a turn, Dean returns to “In the misty moonlight, by the flickering firelight…” with much finesse. Those words, actually, do much to describe the appeal of Dean Martin.

6. “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” (1967 – #21 US Pop, #1 US AC) — These two “Moonlight” songs really go hand-in-hand. Both recorded in ’64, both released as singles in ’67, both topped the Adult Contemporary charts. Nice, dramatic opening and then Dean saunters in. The arrangement – another gem from Ernie Freeman – swells nicely for the bridge and comes to a stop at significant moments. Great ending.

5. “Make It Rain” (1969) — I’ve already talked about this significant song from I Take a Lot of Pride In What I Am. The album was arranged in part by Glen Hardin and that makes sense in the sound of this fascinating tune that gradually builds to a significant finale.

Provided to YouTube by Sony Music Entertainment

4. “Wedding Bells” (1965) — Here again we have an old country song – first recorded by Hank Williams – smoothed out nicely for Dean by Jimmy and Ernie. It’s one of the saddest songs Dean ever cut. After the wash of annoying voices that start the song, we hear pensive strumming awaiting Dean’s arrival so the drama is established early. There is such charisma in the chorus of this song with quintessential C&W lyrics. The singer has planned a life with a woman who is marrying someone else and now not only will he not marry this woman, he will never marry any woman.

3. “The Door is Still Open to My Heart” (1964 – #6 US Pop, #1 US AC) — The first single Dean released after “Everybody Loves Somebody” took him to the heights was penned by R&B singer Chuck Wills. The title track to Dean’s Top Ten LP is again unleashed by a chorus of voices singing the title. Listen to the drummer; that is countrypolitan, adult contemporary soft rock drumming. The snare work coupled with the ride cymbal. Perfect Dean here.

2. “Nobody’s Baby Again” (1966 – #60 US Pop, #6 US AC) — Dean’s most devastating recording. Baker Knight wrote songs for Ricky Nelson and “The Wonder of You” for Ray Peterson, later recorded by Presley and he wrote “Nobody’s Baby Again”. A guitar marks the start of the tune and Dean sings of a victory of sorts; people used to call him “Nobody’s Baby” up until he found a girl and happiness. Notice the arrangement ascends as Dean sings of his life becoming a song but it descends when he sings of the girl leaving him. You can hear a weary acceptance in Dean’s voice through the chorus. He sings of being on the cusp of something wonderful with this girl in his life but things teeter and fall and Dean delivers some of the saddest lyrics I’ve ever heard; “I planned every move and I tried hard to prove that even a loser can win. But I don’t have the knack, my lonely is back and I’m nobody’s baby again”. I talked recently about the sadness that can come to a man when he pins all his hopes on a woman, thinking the only way he can endure this life is to have someone – this one – by his side. When the fragility of romance turns against him, he is devastated and ascribes much more to the failure than he should. In “Nobody’s Baby Again”, the singer speaks of his planning and his efforts to prove that the loser he perceives himself to be can emerge victorious. When that doesn’t happen, he assumes that he doesn’t have the knack; that he doesn’t now how to navigate this life and find contentment. Even though it is not delivered with intense emotion, those lines always resonate with me. “I planned every move and I tried hard to prove that even a loser can win. But I don’t have the knack, my lonely is back and I’m nobody’s baby again”

Provided to YouTube by Legacy Recordings

1. “I Will” (1965 – #10 US Pop, #3 US AC) — Leisurely and emotive. Lighthearted and sad. I’ve already talked about my favourite Dean Martin song, also my 42nd-favourite song of all-time. All that is good about Dean’s records at Reprise can be heard in “I Will”.

Dean Martin’s recording career ended up like the crate of records in your grandfather’s basement; left alone and uncared for, it grew moldy and began to smell. Dean’s disaffection began to show through and record-buyers checked out as he had. This is a sad coda to a recording career that gave so much to so many. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter.

I’m happy to own many Dean Martin albums on vinyl.

There were two acts to Dean Martin’s recording career, each with their own special charm. And with all the failings aside, all we remember and care about now is the unique joy his records provide. Night club or fireside, traveling dusty roads or pondering life in your living room, the music of Dean Martin is a fine companion for wherever and how ever you’re relaxin’.

Further Studies at Vintage Leisure

  1. Check This Out: Countrypolitan – a look at Nashville’s country/pop sound and those who created it and did it best.
  2. The “Other” Chart: The Original Stars of Adult Contemporary – here we learn about the separate chart that was created for the lighter sounds emerging in the early 1960s.
  3. At My Time of Life: Bing Crosby in the 70s – Jimmy Bowen makes a brief appearance in this look at the final stages of the most significant recording career of all-time.
  4. Mr. Christmas: The Christmas Music of Andy Williams – Arranger Ernie Freeman gets his due in this piece on the 2nd-greatest purveyor of Christmas music ever.
  5. Pockets of Bliss Vol. 3 – Dino shows up on my list of the greatest songs ever recorded.

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