Two recent multi-disc releases -- TimeLife’s The Dean Martin Variety Show Uncut and Universal Music’s Dean Martin: Collected Cool -- capture the crooning, clowning, incessantly smoking king of cool in full bloom.
On September 16, 1965, those familiar words, “The following program is brought to you in living color,” accompanied by the NBC television network’s stylized peacock mascot, preceded the debut of Martin’s weekly variety show.
In the age of variety shows, including CBS’ Sunday night staple, The Ed Sullivan Show, Martin’s program breezed through nine seasons. Inexpensive to produce, the show earned tons of money for the network and its endearingly casual host.
Martin, then signed to Rat Pack pal Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records, also was riding the biggest wave of hits he’d ever had.
He even had a signature sound, a production style quite unlike the mostly conventional arrangements he’d recorded for Capitol Records in the 1940s and ’50s.
Working with young producer Jimmy Bowen, Martin struck gold in 1964 with “Everybody Loves Somebody.” A No. 1 hit, it replaced the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” at the top of the charts.
The Martin-Bowen sound, including a flourish of strings, high-spirited female chorus, Fats Domino-style piano triplets and prominent beat, returned the singer to the charts with more hits throughout 1964. The follow-ups included “You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You,” “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” and Martin’s remake of Hank Locklin’s country hit, “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On.”
The hits continued through early 1966, a surprising achievement for a middle-aged crooner at the crest of the British invasion.
The four-disc Dean Martin: Collected Cool contains one CD each of Martin’s Capitol and Reprise recordings. At Capitol, this son of an Italian immigrant tapped his heritage brilliantly through such future signature songs as “Volare,” “That’s Amore” and “Arrivederci Roma.” There are also duets with Martin’s Capitol label mate, Nat King Cole, and his comedy partner, Jerry Lewis.
Martin’s Reprise hits fill the box set’s second disc, with the notable exception of “Everybody Loves Somebody.” The set’s alternative version of the song features Martin and a jazz quartet. While the hit rendition of “Everybody Loves Somebody” is missed, the more intimate arrangement is a primetime example of what a natural vocalist Martin was and how he made beautiful singing sound easy.
The Collected Cool box set’s third disc contains a 1962 concert recorded at Lake Tahoe, Calif. The singer’s between-song banter anticipates the free-wheeling TV variety he’d launch two years later. The final disc is a DVD of Martin in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London.
The Dean Martin Variety Show Uncut holds six of Martin’s NBC programs in their entirety. The Dingaling Sisters, a dancing, singing quartet that appeared on the show during its later years, may describe the series best.
“Don’t touch your dial, keep it right where it’s set!” a Dingaling Sister sings enthusiastically. “There’s something big coming up on your screen,” another continues. “Just settle back and relax, well you’re sure gonna get a whole lotta singin’, a whole lotta laughin’, a whole lotta lovin’ from Dean!”
Gliding down a fireman’s pole as the show begins each week, the unrehearsed Martin makes light of his apparent lack of preparation. He engages in comedic banter with guests, joins them in sketches, turns mistakes into laughs and then, just before he tells his audience out there in TV land good night, mangles the names of next week’s guests.
A true variety show, the program’s standard spots include Martin’s solo songs and duets and ensemble numbers performed with his guests. Featured performers in The Dean Martin Variety Show Uncut include comics George Gobel, Sid Caesar, Allen and Rossi, Jackie Mason and Bob Newhart; opera singer and former New Orleanian Marguerite Piazza; The Beverly Hillbillies star and veteran dancer Buddy Ebsen; Broadway and film star Zero Mostel; singer, dancer and blond bombshell Joey Heatherton; and literally glittering country music star Buck Owens.
In addition to the many jokes Martin cracks about himself, not to mention his wife, he sings at least one song in all seriousness in each show as he lounges on the couch in his show’s living room set, ever-present cigarette in hand.
Time-Life will release The Dean Martin Variety Show: Complete Collection later this year.
Seeing these programs in their uncut and unpretentious original condition is the best way to experience Martin’s weekly romps of song, dance and fun.