Quick: name the artist, who (a) knocked the Beatles from the top chart position at the height of Beatlemania; (b) scored a gold record in 2004 with his fastest-selling album ever, which also hit the iTunes Top 5; (c) was worshipped by Elvis Presley; and (d) is heard regularly in the hippest movies, TV shows and commercials. Need another clue? Playboy recently called him "the coolest man who ever lived."
Of course that man is Dean Martin. Dean's importance to generations of music fans (not to mention aficionados of masculine cool) now far outstrips his former reputation as the tippler of the Rat Pack or Jerry Lewis' crooning straight man. Simply put, he was a great singerthe warm sensuality of his voice continues to beguilewith a winning style and just a touch of mystery.
"He was the coolest dude I'd ever seen, period," recalled Stevie Van Zandt in his liner notes to the 2004 compilation Dino: The Essential Dean Martin, adding, "He wasn't just great at everything he did. To me, he was perfect."
His childhood was anything but. An immigrant barber's son, Dino Crocetti greeted the world in 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio. He spoke only Italian until age five and quit school at 16. His early autobiography is as gritty as that of any hip-hop starhe delivered bootleg liquor, served as a speakeasy croupier and blackjack dealer, worked in a steel mill and briefly ruled the ring as boxing phenom Kid Crochet.
Winning his share of bouts earned him little apart from a broken nose, but Dino's speakeasy experience put him in contact with club owners, resulting in his first singing gigs.
With a fixed nose and a boost from his pals in the nightclub underworld, he became Dean Martin, styling himself after the top male vocalist of the time, Bing Crosby. He later began singing with the Sammy Watkins Band and enjoyed moderate success on the East Coast; in 1943 he joined Frank Sinatra at New York's Riobamba club.
1946 was a banner year for Martin. He released his first single, "Which Way Did My Heart Go?," and was first paired with comic Jerry Lewis. The two shared a bill at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, but the night they combined their acts into one combo platter of manic, ad lib-heavy comedy and debonair music saw the birth of a phenomenon. They were the hottest ticket around and parlayed their onstage success into a string of hit movies and headlined a hugely popular series of TV appearances on the Colgate Comedy Hour.