Mid-Century Style

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We had a fair amount of Dean Martin slander here recently, inspired by Casey Kasem appearing as Hitler at Martin’s 1974 roast of Don Rickles. For those of us growing up in the 60s, Martin was on TV with a variety show that came on past our bedtime. To the extent that he left much of an impression later on, it was as an avatar of the ring-a-ding-ding Vegas showbiz era. Fair or not, what seemed like casual cool to our parents and grandparents came off almost sadly decadent to our generation: a martini-swilling cad, the kind of guy who would order a steak well-done and pinch the waitress as she walked away, and later stub out his cigarette in what was left of the mashed potatoes.

But this post isn’t about Martin the martini-swilling cad, or the actor, or the TV personality, or the restauranteur. Instead, it’s about Martin the pop star—because he was a big one, and for quite a while.

I submit for your consideration that “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore,” is among the most famous lines in all of American popular music. “That’s Amore” was Martin’s breakthrough hit, making #2 in 1953. We think of 1956 as a time when the rock ‘n’ roll era was blooming, but that winter, the earlier era was not yet over, and Martin hit #1 in Billboard with “Memories Are Made of This.” A far more unlikely #1 hit was “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which topped the Hot 100 for a week in August 1964, knocking “A Hard Day’s Night” from the top spot before being knocked out itself by the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.”

The success of “Everybody Loves Somebody” made Dean Martin into one of the superstars of easy listening. He would hit the Top 10 of Billboard‘s variously named Easy Listening charts with 22 straight hits through 1969, and rack up 11 gold albums in the same period. After “Everybody Loves Somebody,” he would hit #1 on Easy Listening four more times. “The Door Is Still Open to My Heart,” “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You,” “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” and “In the Misty Moonlight” all made the Hot 100 too; “The Door Is Still Open” went to #6. “I Will,” which was #3 on Easy Listening, went to #10 on the Hot 100 late in 1965. Many of his other Easy Listening hits made the Hot 100 as well, and I know them from Mother and Dad’s radios, long before I had one of my own, including “Houston,” “Lay Some Happiness on Me,” and “Not Enough Indians. ”

Martin’s last charted single would come in 1983. “My First Country Song” scraped the bottom of the country charts in that year—although it wasn’t really his first. A version of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” was his last Easy Listening Top 10 in 1969; he also charted on Easy Listening with Merle Haggard’s song “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” and the country standard “Detroit City.” But apart from “Gentle on My Mind” and the album with the same title, country Dean didn’t really stick. The end of his chart heyday came swiftly; no more charting albums after 1972 or Easy Listening singles after 1973.

Dean Martin would remain a major star through the 1970s, although as he pushed past the age of 60, he slowed down, and he was in poor health for the last decade of his life. He died in 1995 at the age of 78. There was a revival of interest in his music when space-age pop and mid-century modern style became fashionable; today, his boozy charm summons up an entire constellation of images that has nothing to do with stubbing out a cigarette in the mashed potatoes.

On Another Matter: I am a big fan of Mitchell Hadley’s “It’s About TV,” and I am overdue thanking him for periodically shouting out my website, as he did in a recent Around the Dial post. Much as my website intends to illuminate our lives and times through music and the ways we listened, his discussions of classic television, especially his This Week in TV Guide posts, offer insights into how we once lived that can tell us something about how we live now. I am pretty sure we would not always draw the same conclusions, but our interest comes from the same general place. If you enjoy the typical run of pondwater here, you will enjoy his site also.

6 thoughts on “Mid-Century Style

  1. I might own more Dean albums than of any other artist – not so much that he is my favorite, but that I tend to buy estate lots of vinyl and everyone had one or two in their collection. They’re all pretty great for those certain moods – moods that often involve dim lighting and perhaps an adult beverage, neat. I commented briefly about one of the odder ones “Swingin’ Down Yonder” (see link below): “Some have speculated that the reason that this 1954 album cover is an illustration rather than a photograph is that Dean refused to pose for it. It’s also been suggested that initially label folks suggested that he pose for it in blackface. If correct, it’s greatly to his credit that he refused.”

  2. mikehagerty

    As one of the lead slanderers of Dean Martin here (I’d argue that it’s truth-telling, but hey), I want to point out that I only have antipathy toward one of the Dean Martins.

    You see, there’s late 40s/1950s Dino, which is Martin & Lewis movies and “That’s Amore” and he was great (Jerry was his own basket of problems, some of which we’re only learning about this week).

    But sometime in the 60s, after “Ocean’s 11”, where he was still solid, given the material, Dean started making every thing he did feel like a special guest star cameo—-even on his own weekly show. Just stand in front of the camera, act tipsy and listen to the laughter, even if it’s canned.

    And the roasts, well, they simply dragged everyone on the dais down to the level to which a very talented man had allowed himself to slouch. There was no such thing as a joke too bad for TV, just a collection of fading stars debasing themselves by trying too hard (and yet not hard enough) and laughing too loud.

    IF I were to re-watch them, I could probably find a handful of celebs who were relatively true to themselves and their legacies (Rickles had the advantage of being able to say “this stinks” and have people think it was part of the act). But I don’t want to do that.

    Remembering Dean Martin for the roasts is like remembering Elton John for “Solar Prestige A Gammon” or the Beatles for “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number).”

  3. T.

    I have one Dean Martin album: DINO SINGS ITALIAN LOVE SONGS. The chicks love it.
    It is the most useful album I have ever owned.

  4. porky

    “That’s Amore” was from the Martin/Lewis vehicle, The Caddy. My buddy had an old acetate of the duo attempting to cut a commercial for the movie, screwing up, swearing and calling each other names. It got around the old way, cassette dub upon cassette dub, not unlike the Casey Kasem bloopers. A couple of mouse clicks and I’m sure you could hear it for yourself.

    I always liked Dean’s version of “Little Ole Wine Drinker, Me” a country-ish item also done by Robert Mitchum.

  5. Wesley

    The Dean Martin Show in its early years was a fun show to watch. It definitely should’e won Outstanding Variety Series in 1967 over the blander-than-bland Andy Williams Show, for one. Unlike Jerry Lewis, he understood that TV is a “cool” medium and the more laidback comic types fared better generally in the long run than the manic ones. What wore it down by the early 1970s was similar to what hurt Martin’s fortune on the charts: too much of doing the same and doing so with as little effort as possible. It was funny at first when Dean pretended he didn’t know what was going on in some of his sketches, which was half-true, but by the 30th time, it got stale. And giving the Golddiggers their own spinoff show did nothing but give Carol Burnett’s writers a great opportunity to spoof that program in 1973.

    I will add that Dean’s appearance with Bob Hope and George Gobel on The Tonight Show in 1969 with Johnny Carson hosting is one of the program’s funniest shows ever. Dean wasn’t a comedian in the traditional sense, but he did have a marvelous sense of humor that came through well on TV. NBC was smart to make him their highest-paid talent for a time.

  6. Pingback: The Usual Yearly Ration – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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