Skip to content

the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

It’s hard to imagine Dean Martin as 100. In truth, it was hard to watch Dean get old. He was the living embodiment of the old joke, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” Except it’s doubtful Dean Martin would have changed anything he did. He was a true maverick in the sense that he rarely did things “the right way,” and he never seemed to have a clear plan or goal for what he wanted to achieve in show business. A great deal of his success came from luck, from charm, and from being at the right place at the right time. The rest of his success came from a talent so great that he made it look like the easiest thing in the world to do. It was not.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, critics and entertainers would make jokes about Dean Martin along the lines of, “Dean’s so relaxed, he makes Perry Como look like a world class sprinter.” In fact, the success of both Dean Martin and Perry Como on TV had a lot to do with their relaxed manner and style in front of the television cameras. Sinatra’s early forays into television were disastrous precisely because he looked so uncomfortable and unsure of himself on TV. Perry Como became a hit because he was relaxed and he had a nice guy image that people were happy to welcome into their homes every week. When Dean Martin started his variety show in 1965, critics were unsure whether America would let a swinging Vegas crooner into their homes with the same enthusiasm as they showed for Como, Pat Boone, Dinah Shore and other acts that communicated so well with “Middle America.”

In “Backstage at The Dean Martin Show,” Lee Hale, who worked on Special Material and vocal arrangements for years on The Dean Martin Show, reveals that Martin’s first couple of months with the show were not tremendously successful. Oddly enough, the reason appears to be not that audiences wouldn’t accept him as a TV entertainer but that there wasn’t enough of Dino in those early shows. According to Hale, when the program began, Martin was essentially an M.C. in the tradition of Ed Sullivan, and rarely took a turn with the guests. As Greg Garrison, the show’s director and eventual producer, seized more control, he believed the show needed more Dean Martin, not less. History tells us that he was absolutely correct.

The stories are now legendary about the unusual nature of The Dean Martin Show. Most of the myths are true. The band and the writers and the guests worked and rehearsed all week long. Dean came in one day a week, on Sunday, when the show was taped. He’d arrive around 1:00 pm, quickly go over his songs with Lee Hale, Les Brown and the band and then he’d go back to his dressing room and watch a run through of the show with the guests and Lee Hale acting as his stand in so he knew where he was supposed to move and when. None of the guests ever worked with Dean before they were actually taping the song or sketch. Most of the time, it was one take and that was it. They often kept in mistakes and bloopers which, over the years, the audience came to expect and absolutely love. It made them feel included as if they were “in on the joke.”

As the show grew more successful and more stories and interviews were printed about the show, the entire country knew that Dean showed up on the last day and held on for dear life. His guests would move him around if he got out of place in a sketch or a song. In one famous exchange with comedian George Gobel, as the two prepared to sing a song together Dean says, “Well, we might as well sing it, we rehearsed it.” Gobel looked at Martin, smiled and said,  “I did.”

As disastrous a recipe as this sounds for a weekly network variety show, it somehow worked and it worked largely because of Dean Martin. Not because he was a perfectionist who secretly worked hours a day at home but because he wasn’t a perfectionist at all. The laissez-faire attitude that Dino displayed on a weekly basis was Dean Martin. By the time he began his show on NBC in 1965, he was a major success in motion pictures, recordings, and the nightclub circuit. He wasn’t interested in pushing his limits and testing himself. Why should he have been? The people loved the laid back style of Dean Martin. He oozed charm. He could be gentle, he could be razor sharp. He’d been working in clubs in front of tough audiences for over twenty years by that time.

Historically speaking, the greatest legacy of his TV show, besides the duets with legends like Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra (to mention just a few), are the solo spots of Dean’s singing. I don’t know if Martin was insecure about his singing in clubs after his ten years of working with “the monkey” who was constantly heckling and interrupting him, but the reality is, even as a solo act, he rarely made it through an entire song with a straight interpretation. He was the Victor Borge of crooners, unable to get through a rendition of a Tin Pan Alley classic without delivering a few jokes and sarcastic asides. It may have made him a hit in Vegas nightclubs but thankfully, the powers that be at NBC and The Dean Martin Show, seemed to know that the American public who were buying lots of Dean Martin albums by 1965, would want to see and hear Dean Martin sing a song – all the way through!

The first three years of The Dean Martin Show are incredible time capsules of a bygone era in American entertainment. The Dean Martin Roasts, which I looked forward to with unbridled delight as a kid, no longer hold up very well but Dean singing with the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby, or Rosemary Clooney? Pure gold.

Dean Martin’s legacy as a singer is something that fascinates me even more than his unusual experiment in television. Did Dean Martin truly not take himself seriously as a vocalist? He certainly didn’t seem to work very hard at singing any more than he did with movies or TV but he had a wonderful baritone and more control over it than people seem to remember. I think part of what undermined his musical legacy is that just a little more than halfway through his recording career, he developed an affinity for Country & Western themed songs. He loved horses, he loved westerns, and so, I think he loved the idea of “Cowboy Dean.” I always loved Dean’s C&W albums and they sold quite well but it was probably not the best way for a WWII crooner to cement a musical legacy. Sinatra also strayed from the Great American Songbook in the late 1960s but Martin nearly abandoned it completely.

Years ago at an academic conference on the legacy of Bing Crosby, I delivered a paper on Crosby as the first Italian American singer because of his influence on Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin. Author Will Friedwald was also at the conference and commented on the fact that Dean Martin recorded a lot of schlock and yet, no one was able to make schlock more entertaining and satisfying than Martin. It’s a left-handed compliment to be sure but as a fan, I agree totally. Dean recorded some less than stellar material and yet, just about everything he recorded was entertaining in some way. I believe he had far more talent than he gave himself credit for but he didn’t seem to have the same ambition as a Sinatra or a Tony Bennett.

In the end, I guess what says the most about the Dean Martin persona and the popularity of his style is that today, 100 years after his birth, we continue to buy his recordings, watch the DVDs, the YouTube videos, and the films. Dean Martin is amazingly popular at 100 and that makes me happy. He was an important part of my childhood. He and his friends taught me nearly everything I needed to know about great music and Friar’s Club humor. Happy Birthday Dino – we lift a glass in gratitude for all the happiness you left behind on record and on tape.

I’ll end with the song that is most closely associated with Dean Martin and yet, this original version of the song that Martin recorded for the 1964 album, Dream With Dean, is not the one that made it to the top of the charts that summer. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this may be the greatest recording Dean Martin ever made.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,