An argument could be made that Dino Paul Crocetti of Steubenville, Ohio, just might have been the coolest white man in America. Playboy magazine called him “the coolest man who ever lived.” Steven Van Zandt of The E Street Band and The Sopranos once said, “He was the coolest dude I’d ever seen, period.” What made him so cool?
There’s a word in Italian that says it all and that word is menefreghista. It means someone who just doesn’t give a fuck. That’s what made Dean Martin so cool. Sinatra went out of his way to befriend gangsters. Dean couldn’t care less. Sammy Davis, Jr. went crazy with cocaine, watching his wife, Altovise, have sex with other men and dabbling in Satanism. [Your homework: read Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, Madness & The Mob by Matt Birkbeck.] Dean couldn’t care less. Peter Lawford was the presidential pimp. Dean couldn’t care less.
It was the effortless way he carried himself, his “casual grace,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Dean didn’t even take himself seriously. He never claimed to be a great singer (which he was) or a great actor (which he was) or a great comedian (which he was). He was so comfortable being himself, and so charming, he went through 30+ original albums, 50+ films, legendary stage shows and one of the most popular television programs in history. He played the role of the drunk so well, folks loved him for it, yet it was all an act. He played the role of the philanderer so well, cracking wise about it on stage all the time, yet he was devoutly true for 24 years to his second wife, Jeanne…well, almost. That’s partly because he had already been through all that. The dude was a damn rock star a decade+ before The Rat Pack ever existed as half of Martin & Lewis.
He was a skinny, struggling singing Italian kid—after being a bootleg liquor transporter, speakeasy croupier, blackjack dealer, steel mill worker and boxer—who hooked up with a funny Jew whose sole act was to bring a record player on stage and pantomime to songs. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were so fucking funny together they revolutionized the whole concept of what one was allowed and not allowed to do on a stage. They practically invented the now-dead art of the “publicity stunt.” To promote themselves in Atlantic City, Jerry would pretend to drown in the ocean. Dean would rescue him. When a crowd formed around them, they’d leap up, yell “MARTIN AND LEWIS TONIGHT AT THE 500 CLUB,” and run off the beach. Their New York Copacabana shows, especially the ones that started at 1 a.m., were surrealistic and impossibly hilarious. One forgets all these years later that Martin & Lewis enjoyed that rare type of transcendent fame that only folks like Elvis and the Beatles knew. When they broke up 10 years to the day they formed, everyone knew Jerry Lewis would be a big star. Dean Martin surprised ‘em all.
Now comes Collected Cool (Universal Music Enterprises), the first box to combine his Capitol and Reprise years: three CDs and a DVD that comes as close to approximating the cool as any set ever released. Here’s how cool of a dad he was. Check this out. In 1964, he was a 47-year-old crooner who hadn’t had a hit in six years. His son, Dean Paul, loved the Beatles. Dino hated the Beatles and told his son he’d cut a tune that would knock ‘em right off the number one spot on the charts. He goes and cuts a song written in 1947 that so many singers—including Sinatra—tried to have a hit with and failed. Sure enough, “Everybody Loves Somebody,” on August 15, 1964, knocked “A Hard Day’s Night” from its number one spot. And there’s a version of that song within this box—without the backup singers, without the strings—that is as spiritually moving and transcendent as anything he ever recorded.
Highlights include his Conway Twitty duet, “My First Country Song” (yeah, Dean made fun of it but he was one hell of a country music singer too), his song parodies (the politically incorrect “I Enjoy Being A Fag”), the Jerry Lewis duet (“Pardners”), and, of course, hits like “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head,” “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” “That’s Amore,” “Sway,” “Volare” and a ton more.
Sadly, Dean died inside in 1987, when son Dean Paul died in a plane crash. He turned reclusive, and was forced off tours when his not giving a fuck got totally extreme and resulted in him not finishing songs on stage and flicking lit cigarettes into the audience. He spent his last days as a semi-madman going to the same restaurant night after night and not eating, his soul eaten away by the death of his son. [Homework assignment number two: Dino: Living High In The Dirty Business Of Dreams by Nick Tosches.]