Though his iconoclastic swagger is no secret, Dean Martin's ability as a performer is too often overshadowed by his role in the Rat Pack. Sure, Dino is a helluva singer; but he can't touch The Chairman. Yeah, Dino is good for a laugh; but he's got nothin' on Sammy. It's difficult to paint Dean Martin, one of the most recognizable pillars of carefree '60s decadence, as an underdog. But compared to the company he kept, he played more than his share of second (and third) fiddle. His most memorable contribution to the pop lexicon is that booze-addled swagger, not his talent as a stylist.
This context is essential when the needle drops on EMI's latest single-volume retrospective, Dino: The Essential Dean Martin. Everyone who's shoveled down rigatoni at the spaghetti shack knows his well-worn standards ("Mambo Italiano," "That's Amore," "Everybody Loves Somebody"), but when you listen to this chronologically arranged document, his singular voice tells a more substantial story. From the firecracker '49 performance of "Powder Your Face With Sunshine" to the near-country/lite-rock "Gentle on My Mind" two decades later, Dino's croon represents the whimsical decadence of his era.
"Well, it's lonesome in this old town ... I'm a face without a name," Martin confesses on "Houston," a trotting country swinger from '65 that might serve as a telling metaphor for his stint in Sinatra's Vegas. As on the record's other tear-jerkers ("Inamorata," "Kiss") his croon is effortless. The later, brassier hits, including a driving 6/8 version of "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On" and "Little Ole Wine Drinker in Me" evidence the fact that Dino knew times were a-changin' but he didn't care to change with them. And that is the Dean Martin we get to know through this remarkable retrospective Ã someone Dino biographer Nick Tosches deemed "menefreghista" (Italian for "one who doesn't give a fuck"). We get to know a man whose immaculately conceived coolness allows him to live without a care in the world. Maybe that's why he decided to go golfing instead of joining Frank and Sammy on a money-grab reunion in the '80s. Maybe that's why he spawns generation after generation of third-rate imitators. Maybe that's the real secret to his swagger.