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Martin, Dean (1917-1995)

Martin, Dean (1917-1995)

Dean Martin remains an example of the consummate popular American entertainer in the post World War II era. A tremendous influence upon other entertainers of quality, such as Elvis Presley, Martin was equally adept at singing, acting, and live performance. An early pioneer in the entertainment field, Dean Martin saw the development of radio, film, recording, and television as viable options for his varied talents. His eagerness to try these new avenues allowed him to grow beyond nightclubs and other live venues. This resulted in a many-faceted career that functioned on a number of levels for almost 50 years. Additionally, as an entertainer and a member of the hip 1960s Las Vegas Rat Pack—along with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford—Martin created a boozy, brash-but-lovable on-stage character, known as Dino, that became a part of the vernacular of popular American culture.

Dino Paul Crocetti was born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1917. Beginning his career as a big band singer in Ohio, he legally changed his name to Dean Martin in 1940. Already a local sensation, whose romantic, dark Italian good looks and charismatic humor caused female hearts to swoon, Martin signed his first contract with MCA in 1943. This exclusive deal brought him to New York City, where he performed at the Riobamba Room, the same venue as another young singer, Frank Sinatra. Martin's move to the Big Apple allowed him to broaden his horizons considerably. He made his first foray into radio in 1944 with the 15-minute program, Songs By Dean Martin. It was during this period that he met his future partner, funnyman Jerry Lewis, via an introduction from friend and singer Sonny King. The team of Martin and Lewis, known the world over for their witty patter and effortless attractive straight man vs. the goofy comic style, first performed together at Atlantic City's 500 Club in July of 1946. A fluke of chance, this joining came upon the heels of Martin's first recording contract with Diamond Records. While Dean sang, Jerry interrupted and audiences went wild. Legally teamed together in 1947, Martin and Lewis conquered nightclubs, radio, television, recordings, and made 16 movies together, including My Friend Irma and Artists and Models, before a bitter break up in 1956.

As a solo artist, Martin's film career began with dismal reviews for Ten Thousand Bedrooms in 1957. But, the following year he redeemed himself with a stunning performance in the 20th Century-Fox production of The Young Lions, proving himself as a skilled, serious actor. His work with John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959) heralded Martin's lifelong love affair with Westerns. He also appeared in Four For Texas, The Sons of Katie Elder, and Five Card Stud. Additionally, Dean Martin proved he was capable of high drama, as well as comedy, and everything in between. His films included the Matt Helm series of spy capers, beginning in 1966 with The Silencers, Rat Pack films like Ocean's Eleven (1960), and Airport (1970), based upon Arthur Hailey's novel of the same name. Martin made his final screen appearance in 1984 in Cannonball Run II, his fifty-first film.

From early in his career, Martin's influence as a popular singer of note was apparent. Signing with Capitol Records in 1948, he became known for his exquisite vocal treatment of love songs. Yet, like his film career, Martin's music was remarkably varied. He recorded popular standards, jazz, blues, and country and western numbers, as well as Italian and Christmas tunes. His many hits at Capitol included "I'll Always Love You," "Oh Marie," "That's Amore," and "Memories Are Made of This." While at Capitol he first recorded one of the songs with which he is most often associated, "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," and a cowboy tune with teen idol Ricky Nelson for the 1959 film Rio Bravo —"My Rifle, My Pony and Me." Martin's ability to transcend genre and style only added to his larger-than-life image. During the course of his recording career, he sang and recorded with Merle Haggard, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting, Bing Crosby, and members of his beloved Rat Pack.

In 1962, Martin moved his recording career to Sinatra's label, Reprise, and started his own production company, Claude Productions, to insure that he retained exclusive control over his work. It was at Reprise that Martin recorded albums such as Dino: Italian Love Songs, Dean 'Tex' Martin: Country Style, and Dino in 1972. He also recorded his signature song, "Everybody Loves Somebody." Using the vocal gymnastics that came so effortlessly to him, Dean Martin's recording session on April 16, 1964 resulted in a number one hit which came in the midst of Beatlemania. This allowed Martin to demand a $100,000 per week fee from Nevada casino magnet Bill Harrah for his appearances at Harrah's-Tahoe. This period was a high point in Dean Martin's career, as he was very much an entertainer who had won the hearts of his diverse and ever-expanding audience. His association with the high-living Rat Pack solidified his on-stage persona, while his private life became fodder for fan magazines and newspapers.

Adding to his high profile, NBC television premiered The Dean Martin Show on September 16, 1965. It was one of the highest rated shows of the 1965-66 television season. In order to keep Martin, NBC offered him a three-year contract at $283,000 per episode and shares in NBC's parent company, RCA. Because he only worked eight hours a week, Martin still holds the record for being the highest-paid television performer. Again, his breezy, devil-may-care style won over America and his critics. For nine seasons, Martin played up his cocktail-fueled stage persona all the while remaining a vocal stylist of integrity and substance. It was during the final season that the show's name was changed to The Dean Martin Comedy Hour and featured what would eventually be known as "Dean Martin's Celebrity Roasts," a take off of the Friar's Club roasts.

Following the last season of his television show, Martin continued to perform and record. A highlight of this period was a 1976 reunion with Jerry Lewis during one of the many MS telethons Lewis hosted. Orchestrated by Sinatra, it was a poignant moment for America as it had been 22 years since the old partners shared a stage. It would be for the last time. The death of one of Martin's eight children, Dino, Jr., in 1987 severely affected the entertainer. From that point on he seemed to be slipping away. Eventually his time was spent watching Westerns on television, playing golf, and dining out. He rarely worked or saw even his closest friends, though he remained close with his second wife, Jeanne Biegger Martin, from whom he was divorced. A sad, frail figure at the end, this image belies the life he lived to the hilt and the image he retains as the handsome, smiling Italian lover, cocktail in one hand, cigarette in the other, and a "broad" on each arm.

His final performance was at Bally's Las Vegas in June of 1990. Dean Martin passed away on Christmas Day, 1995, leaving a legacy that epitomizes the ideal of a twentieth-century entertainer and the image of a glamorous, fun-loving, popular icon, who continued to be emulated throughout the world at the end of the twentieth century.

—Jana Pendragon

Further Reading:

Tosches, Nick. Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. New York, Dell, 1992.

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