Life

Dino epitome of cool

LORNE VANSINCLAIR

The word "cool" is, well, really cool. It's one of the few slang words that's been around for decades and still means the same thing. A cool person is laid back, unflappable, really knows what's happening. Cool is used in music a lot; it's the ultimate compliment, so it strikes me as a bit ironic that the coolest of cool singers was not considered hip, wasn't really with it, but as more and more people are acknowledging, Dean Martin was the epitome of cool.

That was demonstrated in 2007 when producer Phil Ramone and others released a CD calledForever Coolwhere current stars, including actor Kevin Spacey, sang "duets" with Dean Martin. Dean Martin died on Christmas Day in 1995; the duets were made using his original vocal tracks with new instrumental backing. The CD was a commercial and critical success and one track,Baby It's Cold Outsidewith Martina McBride, was a hit on the country charts.

Martin had a carefully cultivated image as a womanizer, a man about town and an alcoholic, none of which was true. Although he did have three wives (not at the same time), he was a dedicated family man. He was not a party animal and although he often had a drink in his hand during his shows, it was a prop. Reportedly none of the "Rat Pack" (Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra) ever drank alcohol onstage. Sinatra and Davis did like to go on all-night binges after their shows, but Martin was not interested in joining them.

There is even a story, which I can't substantiate but sounds good, of a large party in Martin's home at the height of his fame. Part way through, guests noticed Martin hadn't been seen for a while. After searching all over they finally found him in his room, alone, watching TV.

The image, of course, is larger than life. Martin has become a cultural icon, evidenced by the large number of Martin "tribute artists" who make a living impersonating him.

He was a comedian (with Jerry Lewis), actor and a born showman as well as being a singer. He excelled at all of them, but it is often overlooked that he wasn't just a showman who could sing, he was a great singer. In fact, he was one of the best popular singers of the era. He had a wonderful, resonant baritone voice, he could hit low notes like nobody else but mostly, he had a way with a song that made it all sound soooo easy.

Nobody could sing Italian love songs like Dino, though many tried. Virtually all of his biggest hits, and he had a lot includingSway, Volare, Memories Are Made Of ThisandThat's Amore,have been recorded over and over again by other singers but, to my ears anyway, nobody sang a Dean Martin song better than the man himself. He was also a big influence on other singers, most notably Elvis Presley, who is said to have idolized him.

Presley recorded many of his songs and re-worked others. Presley'sSurrender bears an uncanny resemblance to Martin'sReturn To Sorrento,and in comparison, comes up short.

According to an online biography, Martin began his career in 1937 under his real name, Dino Crocetti, singing with bands in and around his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. He anglicized his name in 1940 and moved to New York City in 1943 to play the nightclubs.

He did make a few singles in 1946 and 1947 for small labels Diamond and Apollo, but then teamed up with Jerry Lewis, became a major star and began recording for Capitol in 1948.

He was always considered a mainstream artist so his records are not particularly collectable; they don't command a lot of money, which is a good reason to collect them.

Martin released about sixty LPs over his long career, not all of them are great but many are. He recorded pop hits, jazz, movie soundtracks and he was the only member of the Rat Pack to record country and western. He even recorded a duet with Ricky Nelson (when both were still alive), his co-star in the movie Rio Bravo.A good Dean Martin collection can have a lot of musical variety, and you won't go broke building it.

Virtually all his LP releases are available on re-issue CDs with original artwork, so you can go that route but you can also have some fun, and save some money, collecting the original vinyl.

The hard part isn't finding the records -- there's plenty around -- but finding them in top-notch condition will take some time. Records like this were not considered works of art like, say, that leather-bound set of Beethoven symphonies that sat in a bookshelf for years. These were just popular records, cheap, disposable entertainment.

They would be taken out at parties, stacked on record changers and played on old machines with heavy tone arms and worn out needles.

His recorded output falls into roughly three categories, most common are his 1960s hits on the Reprise label, there's a few movie soundtracks, but for my money, his best are the recordings he made for Capitol.

He had the best bands, the best arrangers, great songs and of course, those wonderful, high-ceilinged Capitol recording studios, where all the singers and musicians played together, instead of having the vocals overdubbed from a sound booth as was the later practice.

Some can be hard to find. His first album,Dean Martin Sings,released as a 10-inch LP on Capitol in 1953, certainly is. But even his last, an album of country songs called theNashville Sessions released on Warner Brothers in 1983 doesn't turn up every day.

Now if you're of the rock 'n' roll generation, you may have to put up with your friends' derision, as I have, of appreciating the music of someone who is called a crooner. The term is often derogatory, applied to someone who has a great voice but no edge, nothing to say. Phooey. Some so-called crooners put across a song like nobody's business, and that's the essence of great singing.

The best crooners -- Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Eddy Arnold come to mind -- were first-class artists and deserve to be treated as such. Most of all, they provide a transcendent listening experience. To paraphrase the song, that ain't a kick in the head.

Lorne VanSinclair is organizer of the Toronto Musical Collectables Show and Sale, Canada's largest record collectors' event. Email him at



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