Dean Martin - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            Singer-actor-swinger Dean Martin was one of 20th century American pop music's key stylists, a singer whose deceptively easygoing approach made Perry Como seem manic by comparison. Martin's style was a study in relaxation. It radiated a warm, who-gives-a-damn carelessness, and provided a vital link in the evolution of "boy singers".  An evolution which took the singers from their limited role as featured units in a big band into a more dynamic solo role.  Singing with a gentle throb drawn in part from the Bing Crosby school but inspired more by the seamless, soulful mastery of Harry Mills, (leader of the Mills Brothers), Martin single-handedly redefined and advanced the crooner's role in pop music--even as Frank Sinatra was aggressively abandoning it. Martin's talents were often trivialized and downplayed by critics, but most often, and most characteristically, by Martin himself.


            Dean Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio on June 17, 1917. He played drums in his Boy Scout troop band as a youth and suffered through the great Depression by working a series of dead end jobs:  shoe-shine boy,  retail clerk, gas station attendant, steel-mill worker, and a stint as amateur prizefighter, fighting as Kid Crochet. Associations in the ring gained him employment as a bookie and runner for local bootleggers. The aspiring singer had found his milieu, and developed his boozy, after-hours perspective working in the pits of illegal casino operations, skimming profits, scamming broads and sucking down the sauce. These casinos also featured entertainment, and Martin began to showcase his pipes on their stages circa 1934.  By the late 1930's, he was appearing regularly with the Columbus-based Ernie McKay' dance band and graduated, in 1940, to the featured vocalist spot in Sammy Watkins ' aggregation in Cleveland. Martin became a local sensation. He made enough noise that by 1943, the largest talent agency in the country, MCA, signed him and booked his New York debut at the Rio Bamba Room. In the Big Apple he flourished and by 1946, had inked a deal with indie Diamond Records and held his first recording session.


            In July of that year, Martin was booked at the wise-guy friendly (owned by Skinny D'Amato) 500 Club in Atlantic City, with a scrawny, hyperactive comic who called himself Jerry Lewis. The low-key crooner and the unhinged, knockabout comedian formed an unlikely alliance--audiences swooned at Martin's dreamy vocals and fell apart over the duo's spontaneous japes- and within two years, Martin & Lewis had become the hottest nightclub in the nation. When they roared into New York's Copacabana, their 1948 debut drew star-studded SRO crowds and set an attendance record that would stand for the next three years. At Brooklyn's Paramount Theatre, over 20,000 fans clogged the streets. Martin was the twosome's secret weapon--he was an even better straight man than he was a singer, and without his grace, knack for improvisation and dead-on-target sense of timing, Lewis' drastic antics played as overkill. One of the hottest draws in America, the pairing began to fray when Martin's records began hitting the charts, and 1953's "That's Amore" really put him on the map. Even with Lewis' armor piercing wail ever lurking at his side, all Martin had to do was start singing--with that steamy, slightly slurred purr--and the audience was entirely his.


            While Martin & Lewis expanded their grip on the public with a series of highly successful motion pictures, Martin was always the focal point. With his insouciant air and tender yet forceful romanticism, brought more sexuality into pop music than any other singer. Where Sinatra's bandstand passion was marked by a jazzy, worldly charm, Martin's was insinuated--a seductive, naturalistic style that was slick, to be sure, but in all the right ways. Elvis Presley idolized Martin and borrowed significantly from his lusty murmur; Presley sang "That's Amore" at Memphis clubs circa 1955 and recorded Martin's "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" at one of his early Sun Records sessions.


            After Martin & Lewis split up in 1956, the singer ruled nightclub stages, but his first solo film Ten Thousand Bedrooms bombed. At Capitol Records, he had a big hit with the 1956 single "Memories Are Made of This," and cut dozens of superb albums, ranging from sets of standards to holiday fare to themed discs (hear his first-rate Dino Latino [Capitol, 1958]), routinely thrilled the Las Vegas high-rollers and showcased his studied informality on scads of television variety show guest shots. But he foundered on the big screen until being cast, alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, in the philosophical WWII flick The Young Lions and in Some Came Running, opposite Sinatra, a heavy drama that found Martin spitting out lines like "You ain't really gonna marry this broad? Even she knows she's a pig." These performances, both from 1958, cemented his reputation as a formidable dramatic actor.


            Martin was at the top of the heap, and his onstage antics at the Sands Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas with the notorious Rat Pack (consisting of himself, Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop) only further gilded his towering reputation as America's penultimate swinger (the big dog, of course, had to be Frank). After a fallow period for pop hits, Martin, recording with young producer Jimmy Bowen at Sinatra's Reprise Records, began to get some serious traction during the height of the British invasion. The pairing of Martin's spifflicated drawl and Bowen's almost athletic arrangements delivered an irresistible appeal. Whether taking on country songs with Dean Tex Martin Rides Again  (Reprise 1963) or further exploring his low-key brand of late night ardor on Dream with Dean (Reprise 1964), the team of Bowen and Martin created a series of brilliant, brassy albums (a dozen of which were certified gold) and that, as Bowen put it, "was heavy tonnage in the sixties." But Martin, for all his boozy public antics, was the consummate professional, and never required more then two or three takes to nail a tune in the studio. Next, Martin actually managed the impossible: knocking the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night" off the number one chair when his signature smash "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime" shot to the top of the chart in 1964, and went on to sell over one and a half million copies.


            His NBC variety series, The Dean Martin Show, premiered in 1965 and was an immediate success. Several years later, Martin demanded, and received, a $34 million contract renewal. Even as the flower power and protest posse hotly bid for cultural dominance, Martin, "America's beloved national drunk," as he was known in the press, "could do his TV show face down in a hammock" (as one of his album's liner notes put it) and still slay 'em all. Martin soldiered on, not only on television but also at the movies, with his ticket-selling string of Matt Helm spy spoofs, and he continued to pack Vegas showrooms. His always-at-ease manner had reached a new exaggerated level, mixing just a verse or two of a hit with some off-the-cuff gag, rarely ever performing a number all the way through, but somehow always satisfying his audience. Martin had refined his carefully constructed public persona--the carefree, lubricated swinger--to such a degree that it scarcely seemed like work at all. In reality, Martin preferred to relax at home, watch westerns on TV and hang out with this children. He was also not the notorious drinker many thought, as most of his on stage drinks were filled with something other than booze.


            In 1987, the accidental death of his son, Dean Paul Martin, shook the singer so badly that within a few years he quit performing altogether. Although he had divorced long-time Jeanne years earlier, the pair were often seen dining together at Beverly Hills restaurants and he could also be found bending the elbow, almost daily, as a few favorite spots along the Sunset Strip, doubtless content in the knowledge that he had not only engineered one of the most spectacular entertainment careers of all time, he had never had to resort to knocking heads or heaping abuse on anyone along the way. But he never recovered, friends said, from the loss of  Dino Jr. When he was found dead in his home on Christmas day 1995, the doctors cited respiratory failure as the cause. More likely, Martin simply chose to move on.

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