Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 2

Most students of mid-century culture are well aware of the story of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, later known as simply the Rat Pack. (Frank hated the term and neither he nor anyone else in the later group ever used it. They preferred to call themselves ‘The Summit’ or ‘The Clan’) The semi-formal group of famous friends was founded – for lack of a better word – in the mid 1950’s by Humphrey Bogart. He and his wife, actress Lauren Bacall, brought like-minded friends together, friends who could not abide the typical Hollywood pretensions and dedicated themselves to drinking and keeping themselves apart from the social whirl. The members included, among others, David Niven, Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra idolized Bogie and after Bogie’s death in 1957 Frank became the leader. In 1959, Dean Martin had become a regular headliner in Las Vegas, as had Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. Often times they were appearing at various hotels in Vegas at the same time. Frequently, when Dean was in the middle of his show, Frank and Sammy would show up to join in a song or simply to heckle. The same would happen to Frank. Dean and Sammy would walk in and hilarity would ensue. Word started to get around Las Vegas and the entertainment world in general that these guys were hanging out together. This meant massive crowds of people flooded into Las Vegas with the idea that if you bought a ticket to see Sammy Davis, chances are you’d end up seeing Dino and Sinatra as well. Add to this the hype surrounding the guys coming together with Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop and others to film “Ocean’s 11” in the various casinos and you had a seismic event going on. The celebrity of Dino and his pallys reached dizzying heights. It was at this point that Dean Martin famously quipped “It’s Frank’s world. We’re just living in it”. This statement actually says a lot about the personalities of the two men. Sinatra was indeed the leader, which is how he liked it. Always headstrong and in charge, Sinatra cut a swath through virtually every environment he found himself in. Dino sat back and commentated. Frank Sinatra was head down, teeth gritted, wrestling perfection into submission. Dean Martin was heavy-lidded, shoulders slowly shrugging. Happy to be home in the evening with his wife, Jeanne, and their ever growing family, Dean was often in bed early to be up in time for an early tee time. There’s a telling scene in HBO’s “The Rat Pack” biopic starring Ray Liotta as Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Dino and Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr. The boys are all staying together in a swank Vegas hotel. The camera pans through their various rooms revealing all kinds of debauchery. When we get to Dean’s room, he’s lying alone on his bed with his putter watching the late show in the dark.

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As the 1960’s progressed, Dean Martin made many notable and successful films – with the boys and without: “Ocean’s 11”, “Sergeant’s 3”, “Four for Texas”, “Robin and the 7 Hoods”, “Kiss Me, Stupid”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”. He also pursued dramatic roles in films such as “Ada” with Susan Hayward and “Toys in the Attic”, which was based on a play and co-stars Gene Tierney. Dean’s way of “winking at the camera” came to full fruition when he portrayed suave secret agent Matt Helm in films based – very loosely – on the very serious novels by Donald Hamilton. Dino smirked, drank, sang and kung fu kicked his way through four Helm films starring alongside the likes of James Gregory, Stella Stevens, Cyd Charrise, Ann-Margret, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Chuck Norris. The films are delightfully ridiculous.

Dean Martin is at the heart of another wonderfully true Hollywood legend. In the early 1960’s, NBC began hounding Dino to do a weekly variety show. Martin was reluctant, due mostly to his desire to be free to accept movie and night club offers. But also he wasn’t keen on the work and discipline it would take to put on a weekly show. Heading into meetings with the network, Dino made some intentionally ridiculous demands including an overly high salary and, most significantly, that he need not show up for any rehearsals but only for the actual taping of the show. So, one day of work a week. You can just imagine Dino in that meeting. Must have been hilarious. What is even funnier though is that the network accepted! Reportedly, Dino went home to his family and dejectedly said ‘they went for it. I guess I have to do it’. So, Dean was ‘stuck’ with a highly-rated show that lasted for 9 seasons and featured absolutely EVERY major star of the day. The show also featured the Gold Diggers dancing girls, Dean singing – natch – with his pianist, Ken Lane and generally just Dino being Dino. His lack of preparation was played for laughs. He made no bones about the fact he was reading cue cards – his ‘winging it’ became the charm of the show. This is an example of Dino putting in no effort whatsoever – reading the cue cards and laughing during skits – and people eating it up. They loved to watch Dino be Dino.

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In 1960, Frank Sinatra was fed up with working for Capitol Records and so he, of course, started his own record company, Reprise Records. Over the course of the next few years, FS began drawing many of his recording artist friends into the fold including Keely Smith, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr. and our boy, Dino. Dean’s first couple of albums with Reprise reveal that the company wasn’t sure what to do with him. He started with “French Style”, an album of, you guessed it, French songs. And then there was “Dino Latino”, a set featuring…yep, Latin songs. Then they got on to something. Billed as Dean “Tex” Martin, Dino released two albums of country music. Now, we’re not talking real, sawdust, honky tonking Hank Williams exactly. This is what you might call “country crooning” in the vein of Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold. There seemed to be a good fit between Dino’s easy way with a song and these gently cantering country tunes. Soon after these two country albums, Dean recorded maybe the finest album of his career, “Dream With Dean”, a wonderful collection of quiet, intimate songs meant to be enjoyed late at night by the fire. During the recording session for this album, Dean’s pianist Ken Lane suggested Dean take a crack at a song Lane had written some 15 years before called “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Dean agreed and this gentle version appears on the album. Some time later, Dean was back in the studio and recorded the song again, this time with full orchestra. Reprise Records was excited about the recording and issued it as a single in June of 1964 – the height of Beatlemania. Traditional crooners like Dean were hard pressed to even place songs on the charts once the British Invasion hit. Remarkably though, Dean’s song not only charted but achieved the seemingly impossible – it went to #1, displacing The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”. “Everybody Loves Somebody” became Dean’s signature tune, eventually even being inscribed on his grave marker.

After the success of “Everybody Loves Somebody”, Reprise continued to team Dean with producer Jimmy Bowen who maintained the easy-loping country sound that seemed to fit Dean so well. A sort of “countrypolitan” sound, Dean still sounded like Dean – smooth vocals steeped in the tradition of the Great American Songbook and the recordings still featured full orchestras, string sections and female background singers – but the songs themselves were either actual country songs that had been hits for country artists or songs introduced by Dean that were obviously written in the country idiom. His Reprise catalogue provides a vastly different listening experience when compared to his Capitol recordings of the ’50’s. Recordings like “The Door is Still Open to My Heart”, “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On”, “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You”, “Houston” and, perhaps my absolute favourite Dean Martin song, “I Will”. Nine Top 40 hits in 4 years. Dean’s albums on Reprise are a delight. If somewhat nondescript, they are the perfect accompaniment to a lazy and warm afternoon. For me personally, they seem to transport me back to the late 1960’s and – although I wasn’t there – they provide for me a sort of snapshot of the era. They are very much of their time.

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The entertainment industry changed drastically in the 1960’s and most singers of popular song saw their fortunes decline as the decade went on and tastes continue to fluctuate. There were a handful – and Dean was certainly one of them – that had a sufficient amount of talent, celebrity and flat-out charisma to survive and even flourish by branching out into movies, television and live performances. Dean certainly enjoyed great success in the ’60’s. It could even be said that his career didn’t even hit it’s stride until the middle of the decade.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 7 – Thank You. Goodnight.

Happy Birthday to Elvis Presley! The King was born 82 years ago today and that makes this Day 7 of Elvis Week 2017.

Day 7 – Thank You. Goodnight: Elvis Presley enjoyed more acclaim than almost any other single person in history. He remains one of the most revered  and loved entertainers ever. And yet his story is a sad one and it is a story – unbelievably – of unrealized potential. But generally when we celebrate the anniversary of his birth I like to keep it positive, so let me get this out of the way: Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, knew many different ways to make barrels of money out of a concert tour. Parker was also right in his element when he would show up the day before in a town Elvis was scheduled to play and promote his boy and make sure everything was in place for the coming show. So, for the Colonel, the ’70’s were great. Unfortunately, for Elvis the ’70’s was an endless succession of concert tours that contributed to his eventual physical decline. But enough of that…

The 1970’s are a complicated era in Elvis World. The main thing that people remember of course is the effect on his appearance that his failing health had. But, truth is, King released some excellent music between 1970 and 1977. I myself grew up largely unaware of the bulk of the music he recorded during this decade. Indeed, years ago when I bought the CD box set of his ’70’s recordings I assumed it contained ALL of the recorded output of the ’70’s but the liner notes informed me that he recorded too much music during this era to fit on a regular-sized box set. This intrigued me. In exploring the songs from the last 4+ years of his life, I discovered a lot of excellent recordings. Most of them would probably be new to most casual listeners. However, 1972’s “Burning Love” is – along with “Hound Dog” – maybe his most recognizable song.

As a matter of fact, the ’70’s got off to a great start. The excellent documentary “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” was released to theaters. The film is a great document of a season of shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. There’s great footage of King rehearsing and hanging out backstage. The songs he was recording at the time are unknown today but they have a unique, contemporary pop/rock sound. It has even been suggested – by Troy Yeary (check out his blog at https://pastimescapes.com/) – that “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” is Elvis Presley’s greatest single album. Fantastic songs on the album include “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights”, “How the Web Was Woven”,  “Stranger in the Crowd”, “Mary in the Morning” and a stunning live version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”.

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In 1971, Elvis released “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas”, a collection of Christmas songs including some amazing original material such as “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas (Without You)”, “On a Snowy Christmas Night”,  “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and a song that may be among his 10-12 best recordings ever, “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day”. Then a year later Presley released the Grammy-winning gospel album “He Touched Me” featuring excellent recordings of the title track, “Reach Out to Jesus”, “I, John” and “The Bosom of Abraham”. In that same year, in one particularly fruitful three-day session in Hollywood, Presley recorded songs that rank among his best of this decade: the heartbreaking “Separate Ways”, “It’s a Matter of Time”, “For the Good Times” and “Always on My Mind” as well as one of the most identifiable Presley songs, “Burning Love”. Throughout 1973, Elvis spent time at the legendary Stax Studios in Memphis, home of the Stax record label and the great Memphis Soul sound. His prolific work here yielded outstanding recordings that go a long way to establishing his identity as a recording artist in this era. The great soul/funk and country titles include: “If You Don’t Come Back”, “I Got a Thing About You, Baby”, “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body”, “It’s Midnight”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and perhaps his most energetic recording – probably in his top ten best songs ever – “Promised Land”. The songs have a depth and maturity. The funky ones are a stone groove and the country sides are clean and polished. His last sessions in a proper recording studio took place in Hollywood in 1975. Some great tracks from these dates are the country tunes “Susan When She Tried”, “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and “Bringing It Back”. Notable in Elvis World are the songs he recorded for his last two albums at home in Graceland. Elvis and the band set up in the den known as the ‘jungle room’. Elvis was in poor health at this point and you can hear that in his vocals. But the tired, deeper, throatier sound of his voice on these tracks adds to them a weariness that enhances the quality of the recordings. Highlights: “She Thinks I Still Care”, “Moody Blue”, “Hurt”, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, “Way Down” (his last chart single) and “He’ll Have to Go” (the last song he ever recorded). While they are certainly not his most recognizable recordings, there are many tracks from this era that are spectacular and they are a quality addition to his already formidable catalog. The ’70’s songs are definitely ‘ear-opening’ and add another dimension to what you think you know about his recordings.

And then there’s the aura. King throughout the ’70’s had a grandiosity about him. Everything was larger than life. In a fashion sense, the ’70’s in general were over-the-top and Presley took it to another level. A head of thick, jet-black hair, massive mutton-chop sideburns, ruffled shirts with high collars, coats with similarly high collars, rings on every finger, necklaces (among others, a Star of David and a Cross because, he said “I don’t want to miss out on heaven on a technicality”), a cane and his trademark sunglasses (he suffered from glaucoma). On stage, the jumpsuits became yet another trademark. Based on a karate suit, they were one piece which allowed him to move around on stage easily – but that may have been negated by the number of rhinestones affixed to the suits, the belts and the capes. Certainly what he wore on stage in the ’70’s is an iconic and instantly identifiable look. It’s well known in Elvis World that he loved Captain Marvel as a child and this ’70’s look is largely patterned after that superhero. Also, an album was released recently on a collector’s label called “Prince from Another Planet” and that title really fits his appearance at this time. This is yet another thing that made him totally different from any other performer in history.

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He loved law enforcement officers and firearms and never went out without a couple of revolvers on him. Most are aware of the infamous story of his visit to the White House to see then-President Richard Nixon. Out of the blue he traveled to Washington – by himself, something he NEVER did – and somehow was able to talk his way into the Oval Office for a sit-down with the President. The story is even more remarkable when you consider that Elvis was undoubtedly armed but was ushered in to meet with the Commander-in-Chief anyways. Only Elvis. He was also often seen bombing around Memphis in one of his many cars or astride one of his numerous motorcycles. His excessive lifestyle was always on display one way or another.

Bono says you can’t fully understand Elvis Presley without the ’70’s. They are a part of the story. Most people scoff at the era partly because of the absurdity and the parody of some Elvis impersonators. His look in this era has often been played for laughs. But there’s nothing funny about a hard-working entertainer still wanting to feel a connection to his audience, still making good music, still keeping many around him employed by touring constantly and trying to get some fun out of life, wearing and doing whatever he wanted.  The ’70’s are not all about decline for Elvis. They indeed are an essential part of the story and, if you look into them, an entertaining part.

Well, that’s it. But it’s not. There are so many aspects of Elvis Presley’s life and career that we haven’t touched on this week. I encourage you to pick up a good book on him. It’s an interesting story. I’m Gary Wells. Thank you and good night.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 2 – SUN and SAM PHILLIPS

It’s Day 2 of Elvis Week 2017! The week long celebration of the 82nd anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley.

Day 2: SUN and SAM PHILLIPS – Those of us who spend a lot of time in Elvis World will be familiar with two quotes of his: “I sing all kinds” and “I don’t sound like nobody”. Memphis in the mid-1950’s was a melting pot of musical styles and teen-aged Elvis was taking it all in. Like so many other entertainers of the mid-20th century, he first sang in church and was enamored of the gospel quartets prevalent at the time. Indeed, it was his goal at the time to one day belong to one of the more popular quartets. He claimed throughout his life that he probably knew every gospel song ever written. He also was taken by the dynamic physical delivery of some of the more active preachers in the area. At home, he was exposed to the country music that emanated for the most part from nearby Nashville. He knew and loved these songs as well and they emerged constantly from the family radio. As a teenager in Memphis he also began to explore the burgeoning rhythm and blues scene for which the city is so noted. All of these parts added up to a sum that began to emerge on a summer afternoon when he went out to get a gift for his mama. Memphis Recording Service was run by Sam Phillips. Presley went there to record a song for his mother. He didn’t sound like much that day – or on subsequent days – but one thing’s for sure. He didn’t sound like nobody. Visionary Phillips heard something in this 21-year-old truck driver. But the kid couldn’t seem to relax. Ballad after ballad was tried but nothing clicked and frustrations were running high. During a break, Elvis and the boys tore through an amped up version of an old blues song, “That’s All Right”. Only it wasn’t blues. But it wasn’t country, either. No one was sure and the boys were just foolin’ but Sam Phillips sprang into action. He might not have known exactly what he was looking for – but he’d found it. A white man that sang like a black man.

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