Dean Martin – From Boxer to Crooner

Dean Martin was everyone’s idea of Mr. Smooth. Say his name and even today, almost four years after his death, and many more years since his television show, it immediately conjures up the image of a relaxed, twinkle-in-the-eye kind of guy – who was still in control. A guy who hung out with the Rat Pack, and was pals with Frank Sinatra.

Dean Martin had several careers, in radio, TV, movies and records – as a comedian, an actor, and a singer.   He started out a singer.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio, on June 7th, 1917 as Dino Crocetti, he was subsequently given the confirmation, or middle, name of Paul at his first Holy Communion less than a month before his tenth birthday.

His teens took place during the Great Depression of the Thirties, and he quit high school in the tenth grade, remarking later that “It was because I thought I was smarter than the teacher!”   He held down a number of part and full-time jobs as a teen – service station attendant, shoe-shine boy, clerk in a store, steel-mill worker, and amateur welterweight boxer and prizefighter. Fighting as “Kid Crochet,” the teenager earned from $10 to $25 a match. During this period he suffered a cracked lip and a broken nose, both of which he dealt with later with corrective surgery.

Prohibition was still in sway in the early Thirties and Dino earned money delivering bootleg liquor across state lines, selling lottery tickets (then illegal), and doing some small-time book-making – taking bets (also illegal). This led him in turn to become an expert dealer and croupier in the gambling houses around Steubenville.   And it was in these “joints” that he was exposed to the entertainers who passed through and played the clubs.

Dino could sing, and did for his own pleasure and amusement. One night in August, 1934, some of his friends who had heard him sing talked him into going on-stage himself. He was 17.

By the time he was 21 he was singing in a variety of local clubs and developing a reputation.   He was working with the Ernie McKay Band at the State Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio when Cleveland bandleader Sammy Watkins heard him and hired him. Dino became Watkins’ featured vocalist and word of mouth quickly spread. On November 1st, 1940 he changed his name to Dean Martin.

Less than three years later, in September, 1943, Martin signed an exclusive contract with the MCA booking company to sing at the Riobamba Room in New York City – immediately following the hottest new singer around, Frank Sinatra. In 1944 he had his own fifteen-minute radio show, Songs by Dean Martin, on which he crooned as many as five songs daily.

In 1945 a friend of Martin’s, singer Sonny King, introduced him to a young comedian, Jerry Lewis. But they did not begin working together until March, 1946, when they were each booked on the same bill. They performed separately, but got along well with each other. After that series of club dates, they went their separate ways again.

But in July, 1946 Lewis was booked into another club and was asked to recommend a singer to share the bill. He suggested Martin.

Right around this time Martin also made his first recordings. They were recorded on July 11th, for the small Diamond Records label, and were “Which Way Did My Heart Go?” b/w “All of Me” (2035) and “I Got the Sun in the Morning” b/w “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” (2036). The first two were used on a now equally rare Diamond compilation LP (D-7).

Most fans of Dean Martin’s recordings are aware of him from his Capitol Records period, during which he recorded hundreds of songs and released literally dozens of albums – or the later Reprise period. But Martin did not sign to Capitol until 1948, and did not begin recording for Capitol until that September. Before that he made three records for two other now-rare labels.

The first was “Oh Marie” b/w “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” for Apollo Records (1088), recorded in October, 1947. The second, also for Apollo, was “Santa Lucia” b/w “Hold Me” (1116), recorded a month or less later. Although the original 78’s are difficult to find, they were subsequently issued on the only slightly less rare Audition LP, Dean Martin Sings/Nicolini Plays (AUD 33-5936).

Later in November Martin recorded two more sides, this time for Embassy Records: “One Foot In Heaven” b/w “The Night Is Young and You’re So Beautiful” (124). He would not record again for nearly a year. The reason? Martin & Lewis.

Part Two   – The Martin & Lewis Years

In July, 1946 Jerry Lewis was booked into a club and was asked to recommend a singer to share the bill. He suggested Martin. Martin went into the booking unaware of any promises Lewis had made to the club owner, one Skinny D’Amato, and he subsequently told interviewer Pete Martin that he simply happened to be on the same bill, rejecting any role of Lewis’s in his being there.

Martin went on first and sang, followed by Lewis’s comic act. There was little or no interplay between them – they were separate acts. But after three nights of this D’Amato wanted to know when the “funny stuff with Dean” was going to start, apparently referring to whatever Lewis had promised him to get the booking. Lewis, afraid of losing the booking (or worse), wrote some material for the two to do together. But they never used it, because when they went onstage together the next night they found it easier to improvise the act, doing whatever occurred to them.  

Martin would sing and Lewis would interrupt. When Martin started telling a story, Lewis acted like a mad man, throwing things around the stage. It was the debut of what would become their act: the suave singer and the imbecilic comedian, a study in contrasts. Martin was the straight man, and Lewis would try to crack him up (and usually succeeded).

The audience thought it was great. Within a short time it was standing room only at the 500 Club. The team of Martin & Lewis was an immediate success.   But though they performed as partners, Martin and Lewis were still getting separate billings. They would start out doing their own separate routines and get together as a team only in the final part of the show. They did not perform legally as a team until January, 1947.

The team of Martin & Lewis worked together for ten years. In addition to ever-better nightclub bookings, they had their own half-hour radio show on NBC, which began April 3rd, 1949. They took their show to television as the stars of The Colgate Comedy Hour, starting Sunday, July 17th, 1950. And they made 16 movies together, successfully dominating America’s popular culture for much of the Fifties.

But Martin grew tired of the act. He felt that Lewis was simultaneously using him as a “second banana” and pulling him down with the style of physical comedy they used. Lewis was the dominant force in the team, leaving Martin the junior partner.   Martin – who had remarried on September 1st, 1949, to Jeanne Biegger (the former Orange Bowl Queen of Florida) – wanted to spend more of his time at home. He was tired of the projects which seemed to be making constant demands on the team’s time.

On July 24th, 1956, the Martin & Lewis team made its last appearance together at The Cocacabana in New York City.   The announcement of their split-up shook their fans with surprise and disappointment.

But Martin immediately made a movie – Ten Thousand Bedrooms – which got poor reviews and did poorly at the box office.   Fortunately at this juncture he had his singing and recording career to fall back on. He’d been releasing hit after hit on Capitol Records, having put out nearly sixty singles by then (an early one, “You Was,” Capitol 15349, was a duet with Peggy Lee, released in December, 1948, but the rest were pure Dean Martin) – and four 12-inch LPs (the first, Dean Martin Sings, was released as both a 10-inch LP, H-401, and a 12-inch LP, T-401, with four added tracks).   Early hits included “I’ll Always Love You,” “If,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Oh Marie,” “I’d Cry Like a Baby,” “Sway,” “Memories Are Made of This,” and of course the song which became his signature tune, “That’s Amore.”

Part Three – Beyond Martin & Lewis – The Solo Career

After breaking up the team of Martin & Lewis, Martin immediately made a movie – Ten Thousand Bedrooms – which got poor reviews and did poorly at the box office. To rehabilitate his career as an actor he sought out and agreed to take less money for a role in a new movie, The Young Lions, with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. The movie and Martin were a success, and his career moved back into high gear.

Over the course of his career, Martin starred in 35 more movies, and made cameo appearances in a number of others.   Some of his most memorable films were Some Came Running, Rio Bravo (with John Wayne), Bells Are Ringing (with Judy Holiday), Ocean’s Eleven (with Sinatra and the Rat Pack), and Airport. He also made a series of Matt Helm movies, half-serious James Bond rip-offs which did not live up to the books they were based on and did not burnish his career.

During the late Fifties Martin began investing in a chain of Dino’s Italian restaurants and in Las Vegas casinos, like the Sands. But the investments stopped paying off in the early Sixties. His records, which he’d been making for Capitol since 1948, were also less popular.   It was time to make some changes.

On February 13, 1962 Martin refused to renew his contract with Capitol, after releasing 11 albums with that label.   Capitol would recycle those albums for years thereafter, usually reissuing them with new catalog numbers, but also reshuffling them to come up with The Best of Dean Martin (volumes 1 and 2), The Dean Martin Deluxe Set, Dean Martin Favorites (a new name for his first album) and Dean Martin’s Greatest.

Martin signed with his pal, Frank Sinatra’s, new label, Reprise Records and started his own production company, Claude Productions. In this way he kept all rights and exclusive ownership of his work from then on.

With his friendship with Sinatra came membership in “the Rat Pack,” a loosely-knit group of Frank’s friends which included Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joey Bishop. With and without the Rat Pack, Martin ruled Las Vegas for more than a decade.   Even his solo shows there were sold out.   During the Rat Pack years he played the Sands. During his post-Rat Pack golfing years he was at The Riviera.   He opened the MGM Grand as its headliner. And he presented a series of show-biz “roasts” at Balley’s.

In the Sixties the popular music scene underwent drastic changes. Rock became dominant, led by the Beach Boys and Motown. And then came the British Invasion and the Beatles.   They swarmed over the charts with songs simultaneously in first, second and third-place positions. Dean Martin and his kind of songs were suddenly old-hat and part of the past, a part of the record buyers’ parents’ generation.

Martin was himself the parent of a teenager, his son Dino (who later formed the rock group, Dino, Desi and Billy).   “All I heard from him was ‘The Beatles…the Beatles,’” Dean said. “I told him that while they were a good group, I could put out a record that could make a number one hit.” He did, with “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which went to #1 on August 15, 1964, and was issued on the LP of the same name (Reprise R/RS6130). Martin was hot, once again.

This led to a new TV show, The Dean Martin Show, on NBC. It made its debut on Thursday, September 16, 1965 at ten PM. It quickly became one of NBC’s highest-rated programs of the 1965-66 season. But Martin’s contract with the network had been for only one year. This put NBC in the desperate position. They made him an offer for a three-year contract which he could not refuse. His original contract called for $40,000 an episode, but NBC offered him $283,000 an episode and threw in shares of stock in its parent company, RCA, on top.   Adjusted for inflation, this is still an extremely high contract price, even today.   At the time it was record-setting and simply unheard of.

In 1976, during the broadcast of Jerry Lewis’s annual September telethon for Muscular Dystrophy, Frank Sinatra engineered the first public reunion of Martin and Lewis in twenty years. In 1987 Martin’s son, Dino Jr., died in a plane crash.   It hit Martin hard, and in its wake he lost his taste for performing and retired from show business, although he remained approachable for autographs or a handshake when he dined out. Indeed, he remained happy to meet his fans and professed amazement that he was still remembered.

On Christmas morning, 1995, Martin died due to acute respiratory failure. His own smoking and his many years of performing in smoky clubs had caught up with him. He was 78.

Over the years of his career Martin attracted many loyal fans, some of whom have created impressive websites in his memory. The Dean Martin Collectors Club Site is maintained by Jim Monaco, a fan of Dean's for over 40 years. Collecting anything involving Dean for all those years, Jim has amassed over 160 LPs, over 50 CDs, hundreds of audio tapes, posters and memorabilia from all of Dean's movies, Martin & Lewis puppets, video tapes of shows, movies, other words, a huge collection, including numerous articles from magazines, books, newspapers, etc., etc., etc. (29638 bytes)