Primary Instrument: Vocalist
Quick: name the artist, who (a) knocked the Beatles from the top chart position at the height of Beatlemania; (b) scored a gold record in 2004 with his fastest-selling album ever, which also hit the iTunes Top 5; (c) was worshipped by Elvis Presley; and (d) is heard regularly in the hippest movies, TV shows and commercials. Need another clue? Playboy recently called him the coolest man who ever lived.
Of course that man is Dean Martin. Dean's importance to generations of music fans (not to mention aficionados of masculine cool) now far outstrips his former reputation as the tippler of the Rat Pack or Jerry Lewis' crooning straight man. Simply put, he was a great singer--the warm sensuality of his voice continues to beguile--with a winning style and just a touch of mystery.
He was the coolest dude I'd ever seen, period, recalled Stevie Van Zandt in his liner notes to the 2004 compilation Dino: The Essential Dean Martin, adding, He wasn't just great at everything he did. To me, he was perfect.
His childhood was anything but. An immigrant barber's son, Dino Crocetti greeted the world in 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio. He spoke only Italian until age five and quit school at 16. His early autobiography is as gritty as that of any hip-hop star--he delivered bootleg liquor, served as a speakeasy croupier and blackjack dealer, worked in a steel mill and briefly ruled the ring as boxing phenom Kid Crochet.
Winning his share of bouts earned him little apart from a broken nose, but Dino's speakeasy experience put him in contact with club owners, resulting in his first singing gigs.
With a fixed nose and a boost from his pals in the nightclub underworld, he became Dean Martin, styling himself after the top male vocalist of the time, Bing Crosby. He later began singing with the Sammy Watkins Band and enjoyed moderate success on the East Coast; in 1943 he joined Frank Sinatra at New York's Riobamba club.
1946 was a banner year for Martin. He released his first single, Which Way Did My Heart Go?, and was first paired with comic Jerry Lewis. The two shared a bill at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, but the night they combined their acts into one combo platter of manic, ad lib-heavy comedy and debonair music saw the birth of a phenomenon. They were the hottest ticket around and parlayed their onstage success into a string of hit movies and headlined a hugely popular series of TV appearances on the Colgate Comedy Hour.
During Martin and Lewis's decade-long partnership, Dean had such hits as Memories Are Made of This (#1, 1955), That's Amore (#2, 1953), Powder Your Face With Sunshine (#10, 1949) and You Belong to Me (#12, 1952), among others, all for the Capitol label. Yet when their partnership dissolved in 1956, conventional show-biz wisdom predicted that Lewis' star would continue to ascend and that Martin's would fizzle.
The singer, however, confounded the skeptics. By the end of the '50s, he was wowing crowds at his solo shows in Vegas, impressing critics and audiences in a series of dramatic film roles (including The Young Lions and Rio Bravo), scoring on TV with the first of several Dean Martin Show specials for NBC, and hitting the charts again with Return to Me (#4, 1958) and Volare (#12, 1958).
By the early '60s, Martin's affiliation with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the rest of the fabled Rat Pack supplanted his earlier rep as Lewis' suave, warbling straight man. He fueled his image as a boozing playboy in onstage antics with his pals and ring-a-ding ensemble films like 1960's Ocean's 11, yet Martin later claimed his cocktail-swilling persona was largely a pose.
Though he left Capitol in 1961 to sign with Sinatra's fledgling Reprise label, Martin capped his tenure at his first record company with a bang. 1960 saw the release of two singles, Ain't That a Kick in the Head and You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You, that arguably show him at the height of his powers: playful, romantic and confident.
In 1964, with the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night perched atop the singles charts, teen girls screaming through their tears at guitar-wielding bands and magazines pondering the British Invasion, Martin reasserted himself with typical aplomb. Promising his son he'd have a #1 song, he proceeded to knock the Fab Four from their dizzying perch with the buttery anthem Everybody Loves Somebody. Several other hits, including The Door Is Still Open to My Heart (#6, 1964), I Will (#10, 1965), Houston (#21, 1965) and Send Me the Pillow You Dream On (#22, 1965), followed during his years at Reprise.
Though he continued performing throughout the '60s and into the '70s, Martin's visibility was greatest in films (such as the campy Matt Helm spy franchise) and on TV, where he nursed his lush-in-a-tux image with the long-running Dean Martin Variety Show and the hugely successful Dean Martin's Celebrity Roast gag fests.
In recent years Dean Martin's star has shone ever more brightly. And more than 40 years after knocking the Beatles out of the #1 spot, he continues to enthrall music fans. In fact, his effortless vocalizing has become a modern shorthand for cool, as evidenced by the use of his songs in films like Goodfellas, Casino, Swingers, Out of Sight, L.A. Confidential, A Bronx Tale and Payback, not to mention TV's The Sopranos and The West Wing and commercials for the 2005 Nissan Altima, Microsoft, Marriott Hotels and Heineken, among countless others.
But the phenomenal sales of Capitol's 2004 collection Dino: The Essential Dean Martin--which collects his key recordings for both Capitol and Reprise--provided the strongest signal yet of Dino's continued prominence in the pop-music firmament. Billboard's Hotshot Debut was the week's highest-charting new entry, and has sold more briskly than any previous Martin recording, going gold within months and now certified platinum status within a year. What's more, the disc hit the Top 5 on Apple's iTunes Music Store album chart. As Bill Zehme observed in a 2004 Playboy profile, Dean provides smooth, winking succor to generations anew.
In 2006, Blender Magazine ranked 1992's Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, as the #1 Rock n' Roll book of all time. Biographer Nick Tosches described Martin as a classic menefreghista, Italian for one who does not give a f---. The term, in Dean Martin's case, conveys not indifference but a refusal to be beaten down by the world--and a determination to greet life with an easy smile, a graceful melody and an aura of unflappable cool.