Dean Martin Biography

PHOTO: Dean Martin

This legendary singer was christened Dino Paul Crocetti, and was the younger son of two Italian immigrants; his older brother was called Bill. Being born into an Italian immigrant family, Dino only spoke Italian at home and was teased a great deal at school on account of his poor English and strong Italian accent.

Young Dino wasn’t hugely gifted academically and dropped out of school at the age of 16, when he went to work in the local steel mills. As a teenager, he tried his hand at boxing, and fought several amateur bouts under the sporting name of “Kid Crochet”. He also turned his hand to several part-time jobs that weren’t totally legal. This was also the era of Prohibition, and young Dino supplemented his income by delivering bootleg liquor! Eventually, he found work as a croupier in a local nightclub and began to make connections with the network of club owners throughout the Midwest.

Martin began his singing career at the age of 17, singing in local nightclubs near his home town in Ohio. He dreamed of making the big time as a stage singer, just like his showbiz idol, Bing Crosby. Whilst he was singing with a local group called the Ernie McKay band, a bandleader called Sammy Watkins noticed him, and hired him to be his own band’s lead vocalist. Martin began touring with Watkins in 1938, changing his name to Dean Martin in 1940. By 1943, he’d moved to New York and had been given an exclusive contract singing at the Riobamba Room. Before long, he’d also secured his own fifteen-minute programme broadcasting from Radio City, entitled 'Songs By Dean Martin'. New Yorkers warmed to Martin’s relaxed, mellow singing style and laid-back charm, and by 1946, he‘d recorded four songs with Diamond Records.

Despite his good looks and undoubted singing ability, major success and the “big time” still lay beyond Martin’s reach. His early years as an entertainer were arduous and tough. In 1946, he succeeded in releasing his first single, 'Which Way Did My Heart Go?', and he also met up with another young wannabe showbiz star, a comedian called Jerry Lewis. The two performers soon became friends.

Later that same year, Jerry Lewis was playing at a club called The 500 in Atlantic City when another act on the programme suddenly dropped out. Jerry Lewis suggested that his new pal Dean Martin should step in and the manager agreed. To begin with, Martin and Jerry performed separately, but one night they decided to abandon their normal routine and teamed up in a kind of Mutt-and-Jeff-style twosome that proved to be wildly popular with the club’s clientele. News of their act spread like wildfire through Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, and within weeks, their salary had risen to $5,000 per week. By the end of the 1940s, Martin and Jerry had become the most popular comedy team in America, and a movie offer from Paramount in Hollywood was the next exciting offer in the pipeline.

The Martin-Lewis comedy duo made their movie debut in 1949, in a film called 'My Friend Irma'. The films that Martin and Jerry made together followed the same basic format as their highly successful stage act, with Martin playing the cool, sophisticated “straight guy” who’s forced to endure the knockabout pranks and antics of the clown-like Jerry Lewis. The Martin-Lewis combo proved to be a great hit with cinema-going audiences - so much so that they received much bigger roles in the film’s sequel, 'My Friend Irma Goes West', which was released in 1950. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis earned top star billing with their next film, 'At War With The Army', which came out in 1951. Interestingly, the movie critics were quick to ridicule and belittle the by-now famous duo, but movie-going audiences simply clamoured for more and more.

Altogether, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made 13 comedy features for Paramount, including 'Jumping Jacks' (1952), 'Scared Stiff' (1953) and 'Artists and Models' (1955). Maybe it was a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”, but by 1956, when Dean and Jerry made their last movie together, a film called 'Hollywood or Bust', directed by Frank Tashlin, their friendship had deteriorated significantly. Their farewell concert took place on 25 July 1956; by coincidence, this was also the 10th anniversary of their first show together - but by now, the two men were barely even on speaking terms.

In the wake of the break-up of the Martin-Lewis combo, showbiz critics and journalists were largely of the opinion that Jerry Lewis would continue to attract billing, whilst Dean Martin’s career would falter. Martin was quick to prove them wrong. In fact, he turned out to be skilled at combining a top-flight singing career with movie stardom, to an extent that has rarely been equalled. Martin enjoyed a huge hit in 1953 with his song, 'That’s Amore' - a classic number that’s been associated with him ever since. With the advent of rock’n’roll, however, in the 1950s, the future of easy-listening crooners like Martin looked uncertain; but he remained undeterred. In 1958, he returned to the big screen, appearing in the 1958 drama, 'The Young Lions', co-starring with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. This movie represented a significant departure from Martin’s earlier comic roles, and clearly showed his ability as a straight dramatic actor.

Around the same time, he was also approached by NBC to host 'The Dean Martin Show', a series of TV specials. Both these solo productions were hugely successful, squashing once and for all the allegations that Martin was incapable of making a successful solo career: another classic hit single, 'Volare', helped to firmly establish him as a multi-faceted performer. After all, who else, with the possible exception of Frank Sinatra, could claim to have achieved major success simultaneously as a recording artists, a movie actor, a TV star, and also as a live stage performer?

Astonishingly, even greater success was still to come. Early in 1959, he appeared in a movie with Frank Sinatra called 'Some Came Running', which was an overnight sensation with movie-going audiences. The film also led to the formation of the circle of celebrities that came to be known as The Rat Pack, which consisted of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. The group was named in honour of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, a former drinking club that had grown up around the screen idol, Humphrey Bogart. The new-style Rat Pack set new standards in performing, and soon became renowned for their high-living lifestyle, their association with the future president, John F. Kennedy, and, it was rumoured, for their alleged connections with organised crime and the underworld.

A string of hit movies starring various members of the Rat Pack followed, including the classic 'Rio Bravo' (1959), serving to forge ever stronger links between the artists in the group. Dean Martin became Sinatra’s closest associate; Martin even abandoned his recording label, Capitol, in favour of Frank Sinatra’s recording label, Reprise. In 1960, the various members of the Rat Pack teamed up in the movie 'Ocean’s Eleven', which filmed in Las Vegas and took over the Sands each night of filming. The Rat Pack also starred in a film called 'Sergeants 3', in 1962. In 1963, various members of the group were filming a movie called 'Robin and the Seven Hoods' when the news came through that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, which cast a shadow over the whole group and its lifestyle. The pace of social change quickened soon afterwards, and with the dawning of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the easy-living, hard-drinking ethos of the Rat Pack began to fall from favour.

The Rat Pack played a hugely important part in Dean Martin’s career, yet despite its decline, his career continued to flourish. Even at the height of Beatlemania in 1964, the silver-tongued crooner succeeded in scoring a No. 1 with another classic song, 'Everybody Loves Somebody'. Also in 1964, he starred in the Billy Wilder movie, 'Kiss me Stupid', where he played a hard-drinking, but loveable womaniser. Some critics commented on how true to life Martin’s part in Kiss Me Stupid was, since the character he was playing was said to be very much like himself. In 1965, he accepted an offer from NBC to host his own weekly variety series, called 'The Dean Martin Show'. It was a massive success, and ran for nine seasons, which led on to the various 'Celebrity Roast' specials that were hugely popular during the 1970s. He continued to produce a string of hit songs, including such classics as 'Mambo Italiano' and 'Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes'.

Dean Martin also managed to retain his successful movie career, and starred as secret agent Matt Helm in a series of spy spoof films. But by the later 1970s, Martin’s health began to falter, and he cut back on his acting and TV work in order to focus largely on live performing in clubs and casinos.

Martin married three times and was father to no less than eight children. He married Elizabeth Anne MacDonald in October 1941, and divorced her in 1949. He then married Jeanne Martin in 1949, and was again divorced in 1973. Finally, he married Catherine Hawn in 1973, but by 1976, he was single again. Dean’s family was struck by tragedy in 1987, when his son Dean Paul was killed in an air crash. From this point onwards, he withdrew into seclusion, even calling off plans for a planned Rat Pack reunion tour with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in 1988. Dean Martin died on 25 December, 1995. He is buried at Westwood Memorial park in Los Angeles. The inscription on his tombstone reads: “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.”

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