Steubenville, Ohio, doesn’t have a glamorous, showbiz ring to it, but it was the hometown of Dean Martin, the good-looking, smooth-voiced, Italian-American crooner who was crowned the “King Of Cool” in the 50s and went on to become Hollywood royalty. Back in 1962, Martin – who was born Dino Crocetti and began his adult life as a boxer – was 45 years old and indisputably at the top of his game. A core member of Frank Sinatra’s infamous Rat Pack, he had risen to fame in the late 40s via a celebrated double act with comedian Jerry Lewis, before moving successfully into the world of movies.
Though he was heartthrob of the silver screen, it’s easy to forget that Martin was also a hugely popular singing sensation during the same timeframe, possessing a voice that caressed like melted butter drizzled with honey. He cut his first record in 1946 and scored his maiden US pop chart-topper with ‘Memories Are Made Of This’ 10 years later. Though a rock’n’roll tsunami engulfed popular music in the late 50s and threatened to obliterate the crooners and swingers, Martin’s career showed no sign of faltering as the 60s beckoned.
He had been at Capitol Records for 13 years when he recorded Dino: Italian Love Songs in September 1961, and though he was to leave the label shortly afterwards to join Sinatra’s Reprise imprint, the album proved popular with the US public when it was released in February 1962.
Martin had sung material that referenced his ethnic background before – most famously 1953’s ‘That’s Amore’ (a No.2 US smash), as well as two other later 50s hits, ‘Mambo Italiano’ and ‘Volare’ – but he had never recorded a full LP of Italian-themed songs. Some critics have conjectured that the singer and his producers at Capitol had seen how well another Italian-American singer, Connie Francis, had done with her Top 10 albums Connie Francis Sings Italian Favorites (1959) and More Italian Favorites (1960), and decided to follow her lead. Evidently, it was a smart decision. Copies of Dino: Italian Love Songs flew off record store racks and, remarkably, catapulted Martin into the American pop albums chart for the very first time in his career.
Though Martin could swing hard like Sinatra when he wanted to (as evidenced by ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’), his rich, easy-on-the-ear tone and insouciant but warm delivery was conducive to romantic balladry, and on Dino: Italian Love Songs – which, ironically, finds him singing mostly in English – he celebrates the joy and heartbreak of that many splendoured thing called “amore”.
Highlights are abundant. ‘Just Say I Love Her’ is achingly beautiful and finds Martin’s sonorous voice framed by a 25-piece string orchestra, though it’s the presence of a piping accordion and trembling mandolins that add authentic Italian colour. An ethereal female choir contributes an otherworldly ambience on ‘Arrivederci Roma’ and also lends a haunting quality to the forlorn ‘Return To Me’, which is a redux of a big 1958 Martin hit.
Italy’s capital city is also celebrated via ‘On An Evening In Roma’, a jaunty tune which is a revamped version of a song that Martin first recorded in 1959 (more recently, in 2016, it was covered by contemporary crooner Michael Bublé). To close the album, Martin opted for ‘There’s No Tomorrow’, whose melody – based on a 19th-century Neapolitan song called ‘O Solo Mio’ – is familiar to many (Elvis Presley fans will know the tune as ‘It’s Now Or Never’).
Though hardened cynics might dub Dino: Italian Love Songs a prime example of cheesy lounge fodder, the truth is that it avoids schmaltziness because it is sentimental without being maudlin. What makes the album credible is the emotional sincerity that pervades each performance. Martin is tapping into his Italian heritage with love and pride, and without a discernible hint of irony or pastiche. You implicitly believe that he’s totally committed to what he’s singing. And so did the American public, who lapped it up. Over half a century on from its release, Dino: Italian Love Songs remains a high-water mark in Dean Martin’s canon.