July 23, 2024

When Elvis Presley was introduced to Dean Martin’s young daughter Deana, the singer leaned in and whispered: “They call me the King of Rock and Roll, but your dad is the King of Cool.”

The King of Cool, who died on Christmas Day 20 years ago, had a spectacularly successful recording career. Martin had 40 Top 10 singles between 1950 and 1969 and three of them – That’s Amore (1953), Memories are Made of This (1955) and Everybody Loves Somebody (1964) – were million-sellers.

There were a lot of trials and tribulations before the man born Dino Paul Crocetti on June 17, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio, made it to the top. Martin, the son of an Italian immigrant barber, was a reluctant performer as a teenager, believing that he would make more money as a prize-fighter and cardsharp. But after a spell labouring in a steel mill, and at the urging of enthusiastic friends, he began singing at weekends in small clubs.

At 21, he was spotted performing in a bar by a jazz bandleader named Sammy Watkins, who was impressed by his lush delivery of songs. At that time, the youngster was calling himself Dino Martini (after the popular Italian opera star Nino Martini) but Watkins renamed him Dean Martin and a showbusiness legend was born.

Martin imitated the smooth baritone vocals and phrasing of Bing Crosby, also emulating the cheerful casualness in the way Crosby sang his lyrics. This relaxed delivery is what makes Martin songs such as Volare and Return to Me so charming.

Despite immediate acclaim, Martin doubted his own ability.  He couldn’t read music and believed that the fact he had never had singing lessons showed. Jerry Lewis, his comedy partner for the act Martin and Lewis, once said: “Dean could never ever sing and do it with a full heart because he wasn’t clear about his worth. He would kid the singing and never allow it ever to get serious. He did not have self-esteem of any kind.”Dean Martin

Martin publicly acknowledged his debt to Crosby and added self-deprecatingly: “I am no singer. I can carry a tune and I have an easy style but we crooners get by because we’re fairly painless.”

Martin also downplayed his film career – which included a Golden Globe nomination in 1959 for  Who Was That Lady? – and remained a reluctant celebrity, despite becoming America’s highest-paid television star in the Sixties. The Dean Martin Show was the most-watched programme in 1965 and 1966 and Martin ended up being paid $283,000 an episode, plus being given shares in NBC’s parent Company, RCA.

The show, which sometimes featured fellow Rat Pack friends Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, was overseen by Jimmy Bowen, a respected producer of country music. Martin always had a soft spot for Nashville music and his son has said that the only time his father ever put on records at home they would be those of country singer Eddy Arnold.

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