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Dino: The Man, the Myth, the Musician

After his death, the image remains, an embodiment of cool that leaves an indelible impression whether you encounter it on TV, at the movies, or in photographs. He is a man of Italian descent, dark and handsome. Perhaps he is standing around at some swanky cocktail party, tie loosened into a comfortable "Y" around his neck, highball in one hand, cigarette in the other. His eyebrows are raised and his eyes are half-open, his mouth forming a smirk that lets you know in no uncertain terms that he did not give a damn about anything around him. Dean Martin, dead at age 78 of acute respiratory failure, cut an image of suave sophistication and nonchalant confidence so sharp it could draw blood.

These were among the trademarks of his music, a body of work that includes sixteen Top 40 hits spanning nearly two decades. Yet Martin's legacy has thus far eluded the trendmongers and hipsters of the Nineties who have somehow managed to turn Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett into Gen-X icons. Martin's lilting, boozy phrasing would help shape the style of numerous singers, but none more than a young Elvis Presley, who worshiped the most famous son of Steubenville, Ohio, where he was born Dino Crocetti in 1917. Listen to Presley's first recordings from the mid-Fifties: Amid the genre-busting mix of roadhouse blues, rave-up R&B, and wildcat honky-tonk, you'll hear the mark of Martin's bubbly voice in Presley's version of "Blue Moon," in which he teases the words and plays with their syllables and syntax. You'll also hear the crooner's influence on Presley's percolating reworking of "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine," a song first recorded by Martin in 1950.

Thanks to 1) a string of late-Forties pop hits, 2) a nightclub act and film career playing straight man to screwball sidekick Jerry Lewis in the Forties and Fifties, 3) a distinguished career as a serious actor throughout the Sixties, and 4) a pair of successful TV shows in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Martin became one of the nation's most popular entertainers A the toast of Las Vegas stages and Miami nightspots such as the Copa Club and the Fontainebleau. Although his immense vocal abilities drew the praise of such esteemed colleagues as Bing Crosby, Martin's persona was that of a booze-addled bumbler who just so happened to have a marvelous voice. That persona was a perfect match for the cocktail-crazed Fifties, when three martinis always headed up the lunch menu, just as his libidinous TV variety shows essayed masterfully the Las Vegas take on the increasingly liberal sexual politics of the time.

His lack of political correctness may be among the reasons Martin was always an unlikely candidate for career revitalization. Although he was by far the superior vocalist, Martin lacked Tony Bennett's nice-guy charm and affable good will. As for Sinatra -- with whom Martin had an almost dysfunctional relationship throughout much of his career -- he was forgiven for his persistent political incorrectness because he was perceived as an unassailable icon. Additionally, he was not only a better singer than Martin, he also worked with better arrangers and assumed more artistic control in the creation of his albums. Where Sinatra and conductor-arranger Nelson Riddle were hard at work concocting such thematic masterpieces from the Fifties as Songs for Swinging Lovers and In the Wee Small Hours, Martin was content to knock off abominations like Swingin' Down Yonder, a mostly wretched collection of old-South standards such as "Mississippi Mud" and "Alabamy Bound." So while thrill-seeking bohos are currently raising their martini glasses in campy toast to the swinging sounds of Bennett and Sinatra, much of Martin's best work from the same era is gathering dust in the vaults of Capitol Records. The occasional hits collection has emerged, such as the fairly adequate Collectors Series set from 1989, but while Martin was still alive no collection was definitive enough to create the groundswell needed to roust him from his self-imposed retirement of the late Seventies.

Martin had been in poor health off and on for years, and he bowed out of a 1988 tour with Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., owing to -- depending on who's telling the story -- either kidney problems or his intolerance of Sinatra's spoiled-brat behavior. Still, I always held tightly to the conviction that he would return. I believed it if only out of reverence for my grandfather, Joe Bastera, an Italian-immigrant meatpacker who in the early Seventies introduced me to Martin's hot-buttered croon and drunken charm. Martin records played constantly around the Bastera house, both the Fifties stuff recorded for Capitol and the work he did in the Sixties for Sinatra's Reprise label. My grandfather cared little for making distinctions between the hard-jazz intensity of "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" and the MOR mush of Martin's huge '64 hit "Everybody Loves Somebody." He'd rather laugh at the singer's exaggerated phrasing on "That's Amore" or sing quietly to himself when "Memories Are Made of This" or "Volare" came gliding from the massive wood-grained hi-fi cabinet that anchored my grandparents' living room.

Because I followed my grandfather's every move -- whether he was dropping ice cubes into a Cutty Sark and soda or dropping stacks of records on the turntable spindle -- I liked Dean Martin, too. I liked his voice, and even bought a few of his singles. My fondness, however, was based less on his music than on the jacket of A Winter Romance, Martin's 1959 Christmas record and my grandfather's favorite album. On the cover, Martin is standing outside a ski lodge with his arms wrapped around a radiant woman wearing bright-red lipstick and shooting Dino a smile that says he's all she wants for Christmas. The man himself, though, is eyeballing a snowbunny in a flame-red snowsuit, who leers at Dino with the turbo-charged eroticism of a sex bomb incarnate. Looking at it now, the cover is undeniably corny, hokey, and more than a little sexist. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old, it was packed with sexuality and mystery and the suggestion that something delightfully dirty was about to happen.

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