September 6, 1993

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams.  By Nick Tosches.  Doubleday, 1992.  572 pages, $24.00.  (Also available in paperback from Dell.)

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

It is perhaps surprising that Nick Tosches, known for his down and dirty biographies of tortured golden age rock and country stars (Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis, Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America’s Biggest Music) would undertake a bio of a mainstream Hollywood star such as Dean Martin.  His earlier subjects, arguably, at least created great music.  But Dean Martin?  That old comedian who crooned ersatz Italian ballads, played a drunk on TV, and hung out in Las Vegas?  It is even more surprising that scholars of recording history would find much of value in such a book.  But they will.

Some will no doubt be turned off the author’s style, a sort of “new journalism” which emphasizes sex, violence, constant obscenities, and a world view that seems to regard everyone as driven by (un)equal measures of greed, lust and misery.  No one remotely well‑balanced or happy ever seems to inhabit the pages of a Tosches book.  However if you are willing to get past the f***’s and sh**’s, and the obligatory Mafia scenes, there is actually some very substantive research here on Martin’s recording, film, television and nightclub careers.  There is also context.  An author who can bring George W. Johnson, the black street singer of the 1890s, into a biography of Dean Martin has obviously cast his net widely.

Dino Crocetti was born in 1917 in industrial Steubenville, Ohio, and began singing locally in the late ’30s, in between odd jobs as a boxer and a croupier in a gambling casino.  Ohio bandleader Ernie McKay renamed him Dino Martini in 1939, while another employer shortened it to Dean Martin in 1941.  Dean’s first commercial recordings were for the tiny Diamond label in 1946, followed by others for Apollo and Embassy in 1947.  The Apollo sessions are vividly described, based on interviews with producer Jerry Jerome, in some of the best sections of the book (at least for those interested in the behind‑the‑scenes operations of minor labels of this period; the author has written frequently about the music business during this period, and obviously knows his stuff).

Martin’s big break came in 1948, when he opened at the Copacabana as half of the comedy team of Martin and (Jerry) Lewis.  There, on radio, television and in slapstick films like “My Friend Irma” (1949) they became two of the biggest media stars of the early 1950s.  Simultaneously Dean tried to start a legitimate singing career on Capitol, at first without much success.  The author explains how Dean’s first recordings for the label (with Lewis) were made in 1948, during an AFM recording ban, using a dubbed Mexican orchestra!  Dean had some minor hits in the early 1950s, but his recording career did not go into high gear until 1954, when he sold a million copies with a piece of Italianate drivel called “That’s Amore” (“When the moon hits your eye like‑a bigga pizza pie/That’s Amore!”).

Curiously, the author gives us less background and texture on Dean’s long association with Capitol than with Diamond and Apollo, relying mostly on a parade of recording dates and chart positions.  The same is true of his years with Reprise (owned by Frank Sinatra), and his later one‑off’s for Warner Brothers and MCA.  One gets the impression that since nothing much of musical interest came out of the sessions, Tosches is not very interested in what went into them.  We do, however, see Dean’s recording in context.  As big as his record hits were in the 1950s and early 1960s, recording was always a secondary part of his career; this was a TV and movie star dabbling in recording, not vice versa.

The main thrust of the book is Dean’s larger career on TV and in films.  Martin and Lewis (“the organ grinder and the monkey” as Tosches refers to them) was not a team made in heaven.  They hated each other’s guts, and it is a wonder they stayed together as long as they did.  At the break‑up in 1956 the smart money was on Lewis, who had garnered most of the favorable reviews for his manic comedy.  Initially he was the more successful, with hit films and even a freak record hit in 1956 belting out Al Jolson’s “Rock‑a‑bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”  (I always wondered who bought all those 45’s; his family?  I never saw a copy in any teenager’s collection.)  But it was Dean who emerged as the bigger star in the 1960s and 1970s, propelled by surprisingly good dramatic performances in “The Young Lions,” “Some Came Running” and “Rio Bravo,” and his smash hit TV show (1965).  There is plenty here on Dean’s career moves, his marriages, “The Rat Pack” and his connections with the mob (he sang for them, but never joined).  He famous reunion with Lewis on a Muscular Dystrophy telethon in 1976 was, it seems, a sham.  He still hates his guts.

Ultimately, this is not about an artist, but about one type of modern celebrity: undeniably talented, a friendly exterior, but self absorbed and absolutely inscrutable (or perhaps empty?) inside.  A recurring theme of the book is that its subject revealed nothing of himself, even to those closest to him.  Even his wives and his son never really knew him.

The book is immaculately sourced (the footnotes are in back, where they it won’t get in the way of salability), and those interested in Martin’s recording career will be especially pleased with the thorough, 24‑page discography, complete with recording dates and matrix numbers.  There is also a filmography and index.

Don’t be fooled by the commercial packaging.  There is some excellent, original research here into a major popular recording artist of the 1950s and 1960s, who has not been adequately covered anywhere else.  Dino was, in fact, the winner of the 1993 ARSC Award for Excellence in the field of General Popular Music.


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